The Devil is in the Details

I was conducting one of many long interviews with Alan Alves while writing Dark Woods.  Thicase2s one was at his house as he worked on a project outside, and as he railed against the evils of Satan and the occult, I noticed his granddaughter’s backpack leaning against the side of the house…covered in occult symbols.  I brought this up to him, and he laughed it off and continued to tell me about the dark path the youth of the country was so tempted to go down, seemingly unconcerned that his little one might be one of them. 

That’s the way the occult works in our society.  As I wrote in a recent article for Spooky Southcoast, “What if familiarity doesn’t breed contempt?  What if instead it fosters a slow, subtle acceptance?”  As I read through George Case’s “Here’s to My Sweet Satan” leading up to his interview on the show, I was struck by the patterns of indoctrination he explored and was left wondering who or what might be behind it all.  While the book avoids asking some questions, I was left seeing design in some of the patterns Case explored in the book.

What is the draw to Satan.  One thing Case’s book clearly shows is our appetite for the idea of the Devil and our obsessive need to be drawn in and repelled by the occult.  It tracks the rebirth of Tolkien and the rise of heavy metal music while examining the occult undertones and symbols of mass murderers and serial killers at the time.  It might be easy to pass off these trends as just giving the public what it wants, and moving beyond what he covers in the book, to look at the 80s through today as the reaction to those movements he covers.  That would be dismissive.  Whether obvious or subliminal, we live in a time that can be seen as the shadow of the Devil, and if it is impossible to say who the source of the conditioning is, we should at least be able to see the signs around us.

It might be a case of the left hand being unaware, or at least trying to make US unaware, of what the right is doing.  While the devil tries to convince us that he is not real, occult and satanic imagery and ideas filter into our daily lives.  There might just be groundwork being laid for our acceptance and embrace of these ideas.  As people who work in the paranormal, the occult does not mean evil, not does it imply a path to the dark side, and that’s a dangerous message I don’t want to send.  Witchcraft and the Hobbit are not gateway ideas to hell or hell on earth.  For many, however, those lines are blurred and those might be the people the storm is looking to sweep up.

I first noticed a trend while working with juvenile criminal offenders, many of whom were having paranormal experiences in some of the state facilities across Massachusetts.  A student was not allowed to wear a baseball hat for the Pittsburgh Pirates because it was their way to represent their gang.  Assignments handed it had to be devoid of stars and crosses and their hair couldn’t be parted certain ways.  As one member of the Vice Lords sat explaining his gang symbols to me, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities to markings at the Assonet Ledge.

Then I published an article about Freetown for the magazine Haunted Times and a reader corrected me about a picture I posted of a Blue Oyster Cult symbol on the Ledge.  He explained he and his friends marked up walls all the time as kids with their favorite bands.  What he failed to see was that BOC may have been part of getting these designs into our consciousness.  He also ignored the fact it was upside down and contained other markings connected to cults.  This is an example of the shadowy way the uncommon hides itself within the common.

For years gang culture in this country has borrowed heavily, mainly unknowingly, from Satanic imagery.  The most well known biker gang in the country is the Hell’s Angels.  Modern urban gangs rely heavily on five pointed stars and upside down crosses, and new members are trained to tag things from right to left, mirroring the technique used by practitioners of dark magick.  Joseph Stalin talked about being able to control and train the youth through their music and literature so in several generations an idea becomes bible truth.  It may be oversimplifying it, but gang life gave rise to rap and hip hop which has found its way into the suburbs and every aspect of pop culture.  Who is doing the feeding and who is doing the eating?  Hand gestures and greetings used in gangs are the same as those used by secret societies though to run this country.

There are other connections to be made, some of which became more obvious while reading “Here’s to My Sweet Satan.”  There is a general rise in nonfiction publications about the occult once a successful movie comes out about the topic.  While this is not unusual, the fact that this has been happening with this particular topic over decades means the general public blurs the lines between what is real and what is fiction.  Middle school students I talk to think Paranormal Activity and Slenderman are real.

In Case’s book, he talks about how the climate gave rise to horror writer Stephen King, who has only gotten more popular in the four decades since he was first published.  His works, especially the 1977 novella Rage have been sighted by several of the modern school shooters as offering inspiration, to the point King has come out and said he wish he had never published it.  Add to this that the location of some of the most covered shootings occur near famous occult centers.  For example, Columbine and the Dark Knight shootings happened in the shadow of Denver International Airport, well known for containing occult symbols.  To further connect things, in King’s seminal work The Stand, the survivors of its apoclypse gather in that state to rebuild.

In 1999, as the new millennium approached, movies and books explored the proposed fictional link between numbers and the coming of the antichrist.  From the top of rooftops people claimed everything from Nostradamus to the Book of Revelations to coded messages from World War I saw the Devil as gaining power as the calendar turned.  It’s difficult for me to agree with this.  Every generation has their hope or fear that they are living in the end of days, and modern times seems to have an armageddon set for every few months.  There does seem to be a form of training going on that goes beyond just our desire to be scared or explore what happens when we die.

I lived in the wake of the era “Here’s to My Sweet Satan” explores.  I remember seeing the Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and the Omen on Channel 38, unedited, as a child.  Amityville was based on a true story and there was no story made up while drinking glasses of wine.  My grandparents and mother took me with them to see A Nightmare on Elm Street when I was 9, two years younger than my son is now, which was also around the time Gremlins and Trolls was being marketed to me.  I’m from a generation who absorbed this fictional battles between good and evil as near fact, understanding I was watching a movie, but thinking they were based on real stories or at least real ideas.  I watched GI Joe and every other episode involved Cobra using the occult to try to gain control of the world, the same thing those Nazis did in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I was that kid who spend their time doodling the symbols of my favorite bands on desks and on paper book covers; designs Case and others claim are so simple that their occult meaning is lost and their lines easy to duplicate.  By the time I was in my teens, the urban legends surrounding Led Zeppelin’s submergence into Satanic subculture was solid fact and KISS really did mean Knights in Satan’s Service, even if they were taking their makeup off.  I did not have the filter of an adult, so they became part of what I knew to be true.  As Tim Weisberg is so fond of saying, “When the legend is bigger than the truth, print the legend.”  

But to what end?  

Most parents would never agree to introduce their children to evil, but might not think twice about letting them watch Teen Titans Go, and show where one of the main characters is the daughter of a demon.  On the first day of school I noticed the same symbols associated with acts like King Diamond and Iron Maiden hidden in designs by Hollister and Justice.  The connections gets tighter when you get into the more obscure, at least for me, fashions of the urban youth.  

They have been trained to see these symbols as holding no power, and it that ignorance might be giving power.  When I was handed a copy of the Necronomicon, I was told to not read it out loud for fear I would raise a demon without meaning to.  However silly that might seem, there was a power in those words.  That same power might lie in the markings of the occult.  There might be something to a cultural incantation brought on by making the paranormal normal, a sort of negative spiritual awakening sparked by tracing these designs and accepting the occult into our minds without protection or wonder.  Think of the myths surrounding certain patterns of music being able to draw out Satan, the same keys and chords used heavily in heavy metal and borrowed by many of the modern bands we listen to.  Who is to say all of this media doesn’t have the same end impact on our culture.  We are more willing to let it in and might be actually be actively calling it out.  

All of the liberal, free speech fibers of my being wants to believe this sounds like the rantings of fundamentalists who see the devil in power drinks, but I think indoctrination might have a more human cause.   Either way, the occult is no longer in the hands of the officially initiated, and the effect of that is unknown.  

When I was a kid I was talking to a friend about a book I was reading on serial killers.  He was into the conversation and then something changed in him.  This kid, who would go on to commit some horrific acts in the future, looked at me with dead eyes and said, “We should stop talking about this.  It makes me want to do bad things.”  The normalization of the Devil as explored by George Case might not reach that kind of dramatic conclusion.  It should be clear, he is not saying reading Harry Potter will make people want to hurt their friends or listening to the Beatles will make people want to kill.  But then again, Mark David Chapman did kill a Beatle…outside the Dakota…where they filmed Rosemary’s Baby…which urban legend says Anton LaVey was involved in…who once…

Satan and SSC: George Case makes his first guest appearance on the Spooky Southcoast

case1Sweet Satan Arrives at SSC

In the world of the paranormal, when the word Satan is thrown around it usually refers to a frightened family, a possessed child, or a house drawn into a darker force than the average ghost or spirit.  It’s the realm of demonologists and fighters of evil.  Even among those who investigate ghosts, demons are beyond the scope of mundane.  They pass the cases along or call experts in to help or even strive to become experts themselves.

There may be, however, another battle being fought against the Devil that does not manifest itself in possession and torture, but in exposure.  The battlefield is not the dark corners of your house, but rather the music coming from your kitchen, the words from the book on your nightstand, and the soft glow of your television tuned to some old movie.  If the shock and awe of famous demonic cases is the front lines, there may be spies in the corn sending mixed signals, using words and images to convince, and entering our thoughts in ways we can’t imagine until what should inspire terror becomes as familiar as the cereal we eat or the tunes we hum along with our kids.   

What if familiarity doesn’t breed contempt?  What if instead it fosters a slow, subtle acceptance?

This week, Spooky Southcoast welcomes in author George Case to discuss his book Here’s to My Sweet Satan.  For those who aren’t familiar with backwards messages or the Satanic legacy of Led Zeppelin, the title is a reference to the words people say are hidden in Stairway to Heaven when you play the classic backwards.  It also is a flag buried deep into a generation of music and media which seemed obsessed with Satan and introduced the occult to millions of people who never saw it coming.  Case begins our culture’s odyssey in the mid-Sixties and takes it through to the early Eighties, just at the time when the seeds of the Devil started to flower for the generation who grew up in the shadows of the Baby Boomers.  The book works as a map to what might be the greatest conspiracy of the 20th and 21st century or a spiritual first attack signalling a larger war.   

The book itself does not directly confront the underlying causes of our embracing of the Devil but instead offers a picture of how these things came to be in front of us.  Case leaves the question of why and the question of the real who to the reader.  Touching upon every single movement of the occult in that time period, he examines the surface causes and connections as to why the artists began to lean so heavily on Satan and witchcraft and their work and shows how the general public ate up what they were getting.  For example, he follows the connection between Aleister Crowley and the rise of blues driven hard rock and heavy metal through bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and the Beatles.  We had previously touched on some of these connections with guests like R. Gary Patterson and Joe Niezgoda, but the book also delves into the public’s reaction to the music and the symbols they pushed forward.

Here’s to My Sweet Satan shows the correlation between those musical indoctrinations and what we were consuming in theaters and television and what we were seeing on the news.  The world of Sgt. Pepper and Blue Oyster Cult is also the world of the Exorcist and Amityville and Manson and Franken Berry cereal.  A rise in Tolkien gives birth to Stephen King and Scooby Do.  The connections can be overwhelming at times, but Case does an excellent job of laying out each media form in its own chapter, giving background and context for the rise of each before commenting on how the other forms were influenced and influenced the other. 

In reading the book, one trend starts to be seen.  Driven by fiction and fantasy, the public almost demands and then dines on reality.  After a fictional work like the Exorcist explodes on the scene, dozens of nonfiction titles follow in its wake.  While this doesn’t seem unusual in any market (50 Shades of Grey allowed writers to explore the real world of bondage and the popularity of Jaws inspired real examination of the world of sharks), the pure volume of the cause and effect he reveals points at something larger and darker working in the world.  It could be our own desire to understand and even live in the darkness or even our absolute terror of it, but the crossing of generational gaps and the mediums and creators of the art point at something bigger.

 Is the devil among us?  Are his agents setting the stage for something or even looking to invoke Him in a tangible way?  Is there an organization or power in our society using Satan to distract us.

George Case doesn’t tackle this in the book.  He also does not offer a picture of the world we now live in built on the foundation of those three decades he covers, implying there may be another book in the work covering more modern times.  Signaled in many way by the death of John Lennon, the floodgates seemed to open in the early Eighties to the world of the occult and Satan.  Child abuse cases sprung up across the country with occult undertones.  Domestic terrorists, white supremacists, and inner city gangs began to adopt Satanic and occult imagery, either knowingly or unknowingly.  Evangelists exploded and offered ammunition against the evil creeping into our homes.  Paranormal movies became funny and campy and inspired people who would go on to create the genre of television known as paranormal reality television.  

Instead Here’s to My Sweet Satan asks the reader to get lost in that time.  In many ways it’s a reference book to the sheer amount of occult media produced in those years, but there is definitely something more in its pages.  


George Case is the author of several books, as well as numerous articles which have appeared in newspapers, magazines, anthologies, and online.  His titles include Silence Descends:  The End of the Information Age, 2000-2500 (1997), Jimmy Page:  Magus, Musician, Man (2007), Arcadia Borealis:  Childhood and Youth In Northern Ontario (2008), Out of Our Heads:  Rock ‘n’ Roll Before the Drugs Wore Off (2010), Led Zeppelin FAQ (2011), Dumbing Down Dissent:  Fads and Fallacies in Political Discourse (2011), Calling Dr. Strangelove:  The Anatomy and Influence of the Kubrick Masterpiece (2014), and Here’s To My Sweet Satan:  How the Occult Haunted Music, Movies and Pop Culture, 1966-1980 (2016).

You can more about Case and his work at:

3 Lies Poltergeist Taught Me

This article was originally published on the Spooky Southcoast Web site, but was recently lost when we redid some of our format.  As I was reading Ghosts in Popular Culture and Legend, whose author Dr. June Pulliam will appear on the show August 27th, and after listening to so much nostalgia based on the new Ghostbusters movie, I thought back to the impact this movie had on me and decided to repost this…

Like many people my age, my ideas about the paranormal were formed from the movies of the 1970s and 1980s. I remember being left in the library for hours on end and gravitating to the books of ghost and UFO stories, but there was something in the easy access visual medium of those movies that stuck with me. I can more easily remember the glowing eyes and red room of Amityville Horror and the spinning head of the Exorcist than I can the lessons of Hans Holzer and Brad Steiger. There was something exclusive and esoteric about those books, but the movies were for us all, lessons taught crouching behind the sofa while my parents watched HBO or staying up late in my sisters’ room watching the late version of The Movie Loft on 38. They formed what I knew ghosts were and whet my appetite for shows like In Search of and Sightings. Those were the reinforcement, but cinema was my hook.

If the general public knows what they know about serial killers from Psycho and Silence of the Lambs and what they know about sharks from Jaws, I learned everything I know about noisy ghosts from 1983’s Poltergeist. I was about to watch it at the tender age of 9 (when it came out on HBO) because it was only PG, and for that same reason I was able to frighten a room full of teenagers thirty years later by showing it to my class on the last day of school. In the age of Paranormal Activity and shows like Ghost Hunters you would think they would have been yawning, but that was not the case. They were literally on the edge of their seats, jumping at the right moments and covering their eyes from time to time.

The movie holds up, but does its ideas on the paranormal, especially what it tells us about poltergeists.

This week, as we welcome in poltergeist authority Geoff Holder, I reflect back on what I learned from the flick I have seen more time than just about any other movie. If you take into account we really don’t know much about any kind of paranormal activity, that there is no straightforward ideas we can cast our anchor on, there are some general ideas brought about by the movie that spit in the face of modern ideas about poltergeists. I ask you to ignore the other movies in the series (an idea that will passionately fought about by Tim Weisberg) and understand that as we have developed more of a social exploration of the topic, we have dissected different aspects of hauntings to try and classify things.

None of what I say takes away the impact of the movie for me. I still cringe thinking about certain parts and embrace the idea of the curse (that’s another post altogether) while watching every single time I see it is on.

Poltergeists are the spirits of people and can act together to haunt people

One of the fundamental ideas put forward by the original movie is that the activity in the house is due to the people still buried underneath the house. Their spirits have been disturbed and disrespected, and they together decide to exact revenge on the humans living above them. I know the idea changes as the movies progress, but as a stand alone work of art, Poltergeist teaches us that the spirits form some sort of union and collectively decide to strike. There would seem to be some overpowering spirit that acts as the shop steward in this, but this idea has no real place in the paranormal world we know now. While this may be more the direction of demonic spirits, it would seem most ghosts, even if they are existing in the same space, have very little interaction with each other, especially if there was no connection to the people in life. There are some notable exceptions to this, but for the most part strangers in life, dying at different times, don’t act together.

That point can be argued, but when you then think about what poltergeist spirits mean to most people today, the movie misses the mark dramatically. Most people don’t even think of these spirits as people but rather telekinetic energy of the living who suffer some sort of trauma in the house. The activity is almost always the work of one spirit that focuses the activity on one member of the family, although everyone in the house is disturbed by what is going on. That disruption can create something very real with its own personality, but the personality usually reflects the id part of the person who created it, doing the things the helpless can’t. Things can get as physical as they do in the movies, one of the things that separate poltergeists from other types of hauntings, but this points to them being more the product of usable energy than spiritual energy. Ghosts can impact the physical world, especially electronics, but they don’t strike out with the same force as poltergeists.

Poltergeists, and ghosts in general, can abduct children and bring them to the ether of the spirit world

This may be the most disturbing moment of the movie and the one my parents often sited when I was being bad a child or they wanted me stay in line. If you don’t clean your room, the ghosts might come and take you away (I’d expand on that, but that psychological damage is for my personal journal). This idea feels ridiculous now; great cinema, but more artistic license than supernatural moment, but it was a real fear for people when they saw this movie. There have been example of time slips or stories of potential parallel universe bumps, and many people who have Near Death Experiences talk about being brought over to the other side for moments before deciding to come back. That is not what happens in the movie. They take Carolann from her bedroom hold her hostage in the veil, and confuse her into thinking she is playing with children until she is rescued by her father.

There are stories of people, mainly children, being taken from their homes, but most of these fall more into the urban legends we come across in the paranormal world. Ghosts, even poltergeists, have been caught in lies, and again there are many of these kinds of tales when it comes to the demonic, but the whole thing seems like something I read in my collection of Irish folklore, and even they only carry their children into the fairy realm.

Poltergeists can be photographed or can be talked to using the television

The most memorial moment of the movie, the catchphrase that survives the series, might be its most seminal lie. This one might the one uncomfortable for some people, and in that way we really need to understand that there is no formal classification of spirits and no set characteristics of any single part of the paranormal. That being said, there are some accepted classifications of spirits and set characteristics of the paranormal. Poltergeists can tear a room apart and throw people across the room, but they are not thought of as having any aspect of themselves presented in a corporal way to the people they haunt. Maybe you can capture a smear of energy, but not couples walking calmly down the stairs. This is even more strongly a media creation if you accept the idea that they are the energy of the living.

Most reports of poltergeist activity reflects a very remedial form of communication. There are a series of knocks for basic answers to questions. They are not known for leaving EVPs or written messages, and you never hear of that kind of spirit having a long conversation with someone. These things all exist in other forms of ghosts, and are the touchstone moments in many of our paranormal lives. In this situation though, the ghost just would not talk that way.


The Great Cryptid Competition

Tonight Spooky Southcoast will feature renowned cryptozoologist Ken Gerhard (#ssc478).  

When I first approached Gerhard it was for a much different show than the one that will air tonight.  Back in 2007, John Horrigan appeared to debate the merits of the Roswell Crash with Matt Moniz.  The show, which falls outside of what I’m normally drawn to in the world of the paranormal, is still one of my favorites because of the format.  Side were drawn, topics about the event were chosen, and Horrigan and Moniz went round by round, battling it out over whether the incident had happened and whether details of the case added to its credibility.  After each round, the audience voted over who had made the better argument.  I don’t remember who won (feel free to listen to the podcast and decide for yourself who makes the better case), I just remember enjoying listening to these two well educated and articulate men go blow for blow on the case.

The idea I had was to do the same thing with some of the better known cryptids that were out there.  It was a bit of a gimmick, but I also thought it was an interesting way for us to feature some knowledgeable guests and have them on in a new way for the audience.  My first battle was to get an authority on pukwudgies to debate someone on another well known beast.  Eric and Lon Strickler of Beyond the Edge Radio were quick to give me Ken Gerhard’s name, so I contacted him about the idea of putting the Jersey Devil against our little guy.

It was a no go, and looking back, I’m left wondering whether this kind of show can exist.  Gerhard made the point that the two creatures really shared nothing in common other than the fact they were unexplained and mostly from the Northeast.  He went on to talk about how he was unclear what the focus would be; who was the truer monster, who was more real; who was cooler or easier to investigate, who would win in a fight?

We like to do this with the paranormal, the same way we like to do this with all aspects of our life.  Who would win in a fight between Batman and Captain America?  Who was the best quarterback to ever play the game?  What’s the greatest album of all time.  We start comparing apples to oranges and think our side is always right.

I’m now convinced this can’t be done in the paranormal world, although that probably won’t stop people from trying.  We can compare and contrast cases like Amityville and the Enfield Haunting and hash out what was different and what was the same, but I’m not sure we can come to any conclusion about it.  There is knowledge to be found in placing them side by side, but I’m not sure we can ever place one above the other.  One may be more credible, or one might have more details that can be explained, but that’s pretty much where the debate stops.

There is so much about the supernatural and paranormal world that defies compete categorization.  The Jersey Devil might have a backstory like one cryptid and the actions of another and the physical description of yet another.  Where can we place it?  Of course, landmark cases or beasts create the standard for other comparisons.  When John Tenney was recently on the show he described an elf that sounded much like a pukwudgie to some listeners.  We use the details we have heard of one to establish understanding for another, which also explains how a rise in fame with the pukwudgie has made some alien witnesses start to rethink what exactly was in the room with them that night.  

Tonight, instead of trying to move one monster ahead of another, we’ll hear about the Devil and some of the other cases Gerhard has looked into.  Some details will be strikingly similar to others we’ve heard about while others will be new and thought provoking.  Resist the urge to say one beast is better than the other, knowing there is no true yardstick for this kind of thing.  We will always, as people interested in the unexplained, be drawn to the moments that connect to us, even if we don’t understand the reasons.  The spooky heart wants what the spooky heart wants, and our continued search for what appeals to us always helps to move the discussion forward.
Still, a pack of pukwudgies could still take the Jersey Devil.  

Does the Paranormal Still Need Its Landmarks?

Last week’s guest, Blaine Duncan, got me thinking about an old article.  I have some other ideas planned for later in the week, but thought I would reshare this.

This article originally appeared at the Ghostvillage News section at

Ghosts do not discriminate. The mass of haunting that go documented, especially in this time of local paranormal investigators, are found inside the home where a family suffers through things they cannot explain. In an era where evidence gained through investigation motivates many of the teams out there, the purity of a residence is the best testing ground for the science of ghost hunting. Is there a need then for paranormal landmarks, those national and international locations most people in the paranormal community can rattle off by memory?

Anyone who has ever been to a famously haunted location knows it is hard to gain any evidence that cannot be disputed. Groups walk around behind each other creating orb photos with their flashes and EVPs with their constant chatter about how great it is to finally be at Waverly Hills. Many are not even open to investigators. People can name the DeFeo children by heart, but they have never been there. They know the genealogy of the families but have never stepped foot in Dudley Town. They will never have the funds to travel to the Queen Mary or Eastern State Penitentiary, but they know of them, and go to chat rooms to discuss them.

That may be why they are needed. Haunted landmarks are the common denominator for the paranormal world. Ghost hunting is still considered deviant behavior, but reading about ghosts and watching the paranormal media is not. Someone who would never investigate a house can visit the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast can escape for the night, touch the paranormal for a brief time, and then go back to their normal life. There is no commitment so they can drop in, like someone visiting a Web site about ghosts, and allow that small indulgence to satisfy their curiosity.

The same is true for people who make an investment in the paranormal. There is no better place to meet other people of a like mind, especially from different parts of the country, than to show up at a landmark and get a conversation started. These locations become touchstones for people, something in common to begin a conversation about other locations you have investigated. They also become concrete hauntings for people, something others can relate to. Someone way have investigated two dozen houses, but it becomes more relatable when they can say they have been to the Winchester House. Others now know where you are coming from, and the weight of the back story becomes part of your paranormal resume. They carry these locations as part of their personality, often fighting to keep them open when they become endangered.

Perhaps the most important social aspect of haunted landmarks is their exposure to the world. Trends come and go and our national attention span is unpredictable. These buildings remind the world that ghosts may exist. They contain the constant paranormal motifs that people apply to ghosts (the abandoned military base, the haunted asylum, the place of a famous murder), so they keep these ideas, and the idea of what a ghost is, fresh in people’s minds. Jeff Belanger is famous for saying a building is usually haunted by the most famous person associated with it. These landmarks become the most famous person, and the details surrounding them become a remembered narrative to ghost hunters and casual paranormal consumers alike.

In the coming months there will be more conferences and events making the pages of Ghostvillage News. Organizers and promoters have caught on to the power of these landmarks to draw people in, so many are choosing to hold events at famously haunted locations. We will offer as many as we can to you, so try and take advantage. They offer a unique look into those places you have only read about before while presenting you with some quality speakers.

Our draw to our ghost landmarks continue to help define the paranormal, and that may be truest reason why they are needed. They cay something about who we are as people, and if a society can be revealed through its ghosts, they represent our need to connect to something bigger, especially in a field asking the big questions.

Tripping a Train and Coming Up Empty

TD -31_2_3

Sometimes the force of a good ghost story moved more like a toddler on a tricycle than with the speed of a train.

After doing research on the legend of the Ringling Ghost Train, I discovered some things.  The first is that no one has ever heard of it and it has no trackable presence online.  This is unusual in that a story like this usually has some kind of traction in the modern era of media.  Not even older sources of hauntings have it listed.  I found a few other hauntings connected with Ringling Brothers, but nothing local or even connected to the college.

I did find more information on the depot itself though, and the news is a bit more encouraging.  It would seem that while the arena where the circus laid up for the winter has been pretty much torn down, the depot still exists.  The Venice Area Historical Society maintains the property and has used it as a way to preserve the history of the city.  A brief history of the depot can be found through their site, although it makes no mention of the legend.  I contacted several people associated with it looking for more information, and I hope to hear back from them.  It is hard to tell from the pictures and map online, but it seems to be accessible to some degree for what I am looking to do, although I will be careful not to enter the property itself without permission from someone from the society on the night of the event.  I will, however, scout the location tomorrow and see if I can get any more details.

I also reached out to Kim Cool, author of the book Ghost Stories of Venice, although the only contact information I was able to use was from her Facebook account.  While this sometimes has the immediacy needed for research, and removes the days you would often have to wait for people to check and respond to e-mails, more and more people are moving away from being active on a daily basis on their account, and unless it is hooked into their phone, it might be a while before I hear back from her, especially considering messages not sent by friends go into the nebulous “other” folder of people’s accounts.

She has several books about ghost stories and folklore from the area, but both her business site and artist site seem to be as abandoned as an old train depot.  Based on some of the information and book titles, I think I might have met her during the infamous St. Pete ghost conference of 2008.  We’ll see if she gets back to me.

Catching a story can be as difficult as trying to catch a picture of a ghost.  My lines have been cast and the stage has been set.  My hope is that even if I can’t get a glimpse of the train Saturday night, some of these contacts I have thrown out there might lead to the next story.

You  can follow the details of the story on Twitter at #Trippingtrain.

Tripping a Train, Day One

ghost train

I’m going to try and catch a ghost train in the act of making its annual trip through Southwest Florida.

For the first time in almost a decade, I am following up on a ghost story by hitting the field. I won’t be doing it with ghost hunter equipment or in some way trying to collect data for evaluation.  Instead I am going to track down a ghostly legend and try and experiencing it in the moment it happens.  As I have said quite often lately, there is nothing wrong or inherently irresponsible in legend tripping, and this Halloween I am looking to be at the right place at the right time.  Getting back to the heart of the haunting.

To try and convince the nonbelievers of tripping and maybe offer a blueprint for the best practices, I’m going to document my approach in the week leading up to it; a day by day account of how to go from story told over a campfire to standing under the moon waiting for a ghost.  I’m also going to be posting some stories related to the haunting, including some related to the theme of railroads and the paranormal.

It will not be as involved as it could be given the timeframe, but it should be an interesting ride.

The Basic Folklore of the Haunting

According to the 2002 book Ghost Stories of Venice by Kim Cool, an old steam locomotive carrying the Ringling Brother’s Circus into town can be seen every Halloween at midnight.  Venice, Florida, was the winter home of the circus starting in the early Sixties until the 1990s when the tracks fell into disrepair.  People and parts, and the wild animals, would make their way into Southwest Florida after a successful season via railway and pitch their tent at the Venice Arena.  For reasons unknown, on Halloween a ghost train can be seen flying over the tracks leading into the town, and the sounds of animals can be heard after losing site of the spectre.

Initial Thoughts

The haunting, however implausible, is romantic and appealing.  From local legends to the famous Lincoln Burial Trip, the enduring image of the ghost train has to be about as American as it gets.  There are multiple versions of these sightings in true haunting books and folklore, and there are different variants.  People see phantom rail workers, ghost lights on tracks, and marry stories of accidents with tall tales of child angels saving helpless drivers (more on that later in the week).  It  would make sense that we are drawn to these stories, and trains play an important part in our development of the country.  They connected cities in the Northeast before going on to connect the expanse of our nation.  Their rise lives alongside the settling of the western part of our country, so the two are forever joined.  They are also the spots of accidents and tragedy, so it is only natural that there should be ghosts in these locations as well.

The legend of the Ringling Train does not stand out as solid as presented by Ms. Cool, but that is not to say it isn’t true, which is not really the point anyway.  It has only a brief mention in the context of some other stories about the circus and offers no eye witnesses or sources to the legend.  That, however, is not the tone of Ms. Cool’s book, lending itself more to a history of the town and some of the people in it rather than an in depth look at the stories themselves.

There are some glaring problems with trying to experience the Ringling Train.  First, where is it seen?  It would seem from the way she wrote the story, the train can be seen going through the depot, which is no longer there.  Does the train still make its appearance even though the stop no longer exists.  Again, the text speaks of it in present tense, but it was written in 2002.  However, it references the depot as being torn down.  The other main issue is the time of the sighting.  Why did it appear on Halloween?  Did that date have some significance to the circus?  One of my students points out to me that it is also unclear whether the train can be spotted on midnight on the 31st or midnight on the 1st.

Paranormal Prep

I’ve created a to-do list of what needs to get done before Halloween.  I’m sure this will grow as the week goes on.

  • Research the haunting to see if there is any more information on the story
  • Contact Kim Cool, the Venice Historical Society, the Library, and the Ringling Museum to see if there is any other information on the story
  • Research the location to get a better handle on the depot and the arena
  • Procure some two dollar bills (more on that later in the week)
  • Scout the site to gage its accessibility, and maybe even notify the local police of my plan
  • Raise a posse to experience it with me

Standing at the Crossroads…