Archive for August, 2010

Photo credit: flickr.com/grendl

 I was locked in an old ward at a mental hospital last Saturday. I could not escape. It changed my entire approach to the paranormal, and I am not the same investigator—or even the same person—since then.

I have occasionally suspected that there is something deeply disrespectful about certain kinds of “ghost hunting”. Those who provoke a spirit by insulting or taunting him deserve to be tortured by demons. Some of us, including myself, could be accused of using places with a dark, sad history as our own personal amusement park. We love to scare ourselves, to feel like we are doing something slightly dangerous—yet, deep down, we know we are safe. We can simply . . . walk out. We forget that for the patients at a “mental” hospital (how arcane that sounds), there was no way to escape. Their lives were marked forever by their entrapment and loss of control. We forget that at our own peril.

The situation: one of the other Paranormal Housewives (see paranormalhousewives.com if you are curious), an off-duty police officer and myself decided to visit a renowned mental hospital during the day. I was excited to take pictures that didn’t require a 12 second exposure on a tripod. We all felt that this would be a light excursion, far from an official investigation requiring complicated gadgets and good night vision. Therefore, we didn’t bring flashlights, didn’t worry about our cell phones dying, didn’t bother with extra batteries and we certainly didn’t think about water or food.

We were all excited to find a door leading to a previously unexplored area. It was all unlocked, so inviting and so open. The thrill of finding an entire unexplored wing led us all far astray into a labyrinth of hallways, corridors, day rooms, and places we could hardly identify. I took picture after picture, until we reached a terribly dark and dismal area where my camera and our officer’s cell phone suddenly died. The mood began to shift—something was present there, watching us, draining all the energy from our little devices. No problem, I thought, this is what paranormal investigators live for, that transformation in the atmosphere, that alteration in the mood and vibration of a place, that unmistakable sign that something has joined your little group. For some reason, none of us conducted a single EVP session—I can only speculate that we were starting to feel a heavy uneasiness, a sense that we should move on and out. We continued exploring, but realized at some point that we should leave—the sun was sinking, casting long shadows from the bars on the windows, turning the day rooms into something more sinister, and M. and I felt suddenly exhausted. Looking back, it was strange that none of us really wanted to contact anyone from the Other Side. We didn’t make the slightest attempt—I think we were afraid long before we realized we were afraid, if that makes any sense.

We returned to the door from which we entered the enormous wing, comprised of several unfamiliar units, and found it securely bolted shut. Impossible, I reasoned, who would lock us in? We tested it several times, refusing to admit to ourselves what was so clear: we were not going to leave this way. The conclusion: the only way that this door could be locked is if someone had locked us in. I was still relatively calm at this point: “We know that doors are locked and unlocked at random here, so this is not so unusual. There is another way out.” We started to walk in circles, covering the same hallways, rooms, corridors and wings again . . . and again . . . and again. We tested every exit . . . over . . . and over. We refused to believe that none of the exit doors were open. A mass denial took over, reminding me of the stages of recovery when a death occurs: first stage, denial. “This is not happening,” “this is impossible,” “everything will be fine,” were phrases repeated with waning conviction. I don’t know how many times we rammed ourselves against doors with increasing panic. Finally, one of us (I will remain vague on this point) picked up a wrench and started pounding away furiously on a lock which—if destroyed—would lead us to freedom. All to no avail, however, since the lock in question was a triple-bolt. The individual in question then beat on the glass, face flushed, as we attempted to explain that we could shatter all the glass in the building without ever getting out—because the bars on the windows would not allow a small cat to escape, much less three adults.

I started my mantra, which did nothing to help any of us: “We’re trapped in here. We’re never going to get out.” I lost all reason as I stared outside, hands pressed against glass and bars. I drifted away from rationality as we careened in circles, in the full throws of panic. When our officer attempted—with utter futility– to kick down the offending door from which we had entered, I knew that all hope was lost. During this time, his cell phone had died, my cell phone was rapidly losing its battery power, night was falling and we had no flashlights, I was dying of thirst and there was no water, M. was desperate, the officer had apparently lost his self control, and I realized something: we were possessed.

What happened to us was far beyond a normal reaction. After all, there were several options: we could have called a friend to bring a ladder, we could have explained our situation to the campus police (which, admittedly, was not a popular choice), or we could have simply sat down, thought out other ways to scale the balcony to the first floor, and come up with logical alternatives. Our behavior was out of character; it was, frankly, quite strange. M. confessed later that she thought an evil spirit had locked us up in the wards; I contend that the spirit(s) was not evil, but simply wanted to teach us a lesson: if you are going to “visit” us, call us into your consciousness, then here’s a little taste of what our lives were like in this hellish place. Enjoy. You could call it remote influence, enforced empathy, or possession. Whatever is was, we were all taken over by it. I have never felt such despair, such hopelessness—as I gazed out at the impossible, unreachable freedom of the courtyard below, I realized that the people we were trying to reach had finally reached me. I understood. It made me terribly, inconsolably sad. This wasn’t fun anymore. This was real; this is how it felt to live here, to be separated from everything and everyone you loved.

We saw a woman in the courtyard, dressed in white. She was taking photographs of a Zen garden in a courtyard below us, in methodical and unhurried fashion. After some worried discussion, we decided to show ourselves to her and ask her help. Her name was Kirsten—my name—and as it turned out, she was a historian and cultural anthropologist. She was researching the history of this place and knew many names of people who had suffered and died here. She could put a face—many faces—to these units and wings and wards. She was cataloguing and documenting the entire story of an inhumane institution. We tossed her a phone, and M. carefully led her through the adjacent unit until we were able to see her coming down the hallway on the other side of a bolted door with a tiny, dirty glass window. It was that moment, when M. realized that there was a room next to this door, a small room we had failed to notice before . . . she ran through it and pushed open the door. We had somehow, some way, failed to realize that we did not enter through the door we had kicked, pounded and abused with such fury.

All three of us hugged Kirsten 2 as if we hadn’t seen another human being in years. She represented freedom, a liberation of what felt like a long term in prison. Even though it was M. who realized that we had been attempting to exit through the wrong door, it seemed to me that the appearance of Kirsten 2 down that hallway was the necessary catalyst for us to break out of our spell, our state of semi-hysteria. The possession evaporated, and we were free. After many expressions of gratitude, we took a mini-tour of some other units she had not yet seen, and she showed us some areas we had not yet explored. I was, however, in a state of shock and quite unable to appreciate anything but the fact that I was out. We all exchanged phone numbers and email/website information. Then we left.

I can’t begin to explain what has circulated in my brain for the last several days. First of all, I suffered from such extreme exhaustion that I almost checked myself in to the hospital. I felt that all my life force had been drained from me and there was hardly anything left for me to function. I cried hard at my therapy session, for the first time ever—because, I now realize, someone was sending me a message. I believe the message was this: I must take these investigations more seriously—I have a responsibility to do more than just ask if anyone is out there. Of course they are out there—and the very least I can do is tell their story or bring them something besides my intrusive presence in what might still be their private hell. The fact that Kirsten 2 appeared on what was otherwise a deserted campus, coupled with the fact that she documents the history and abuses of the place, was clearly an indication that we needed to follow another path.

If you’re an atheist or agnostic with no time for such things as messages from God or the Other Side, take away these lessons: don’t ever explore buildings without all of your equipment, including extra batteries, flashlights, tape to mark exits and entrances and a map of the area you are in. Don’t ever assume that daytime investigations are “safer” than nighttime ones; they are not. Make sure to block doors with something that can’t slip. Give yourself a time limit and get out when you have all agreed to do so. Don’t wander off to distant wards without knowing how to retrace your steps. Finally, always bring water and snacks in case something unexpected keeps you somewhere longer than you expected, or you’re stuck with a hypoglycemic.

If you believe that God or a higher power can send you a message, then pay attention to the lesson that you are supposed to learn. I will never again investigate a place with no care or concern for the history of the place and who lived and died there. I will not investigate simply because it’s fun and scary. I will either learn how to send a spirit to the light, or if I am not spiritually advanced enough to do that, I will find out who was here, write their story to the extent that it is possible and tell it to the widest audience I am capable of finding.

If I spend my time seeking souls in the dark, I should have light to bring them in return.

Lesson learned.

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