Friday, August 12, 2011

Spook File

While doing some things around the house the other day, I popped in a VHS tape of some old episodes of "Scariest Places on Earth". I've commented on this show before, with regard to how much I felt Alan Robeson's dramatics ruined any potential credibility the show may have had. Those were the "family investigates haunted place" episodes; these were the regular Robeson-free episodes.

The episode I was watching was about Athens, Ohio, supposedly #21 in a worldwide list of the most haunted places. (I can't remember now who made the list--possibly the British Society for Psychical Research). The story centered around an abandoned lunatic asylum and the local university campus in Athens. The library archivist kept something called the "Spook File". It was a folder in a vertical file full of newspaper clippings and photocopied articles about the weird goings-on in the city. According to the archivist, it was the most heavily-used item in special collections.

I had forgotten about this episode, and it occurred to me how cool the idea was of having a campus "spook file". I started to wonder why more universities didn't have them. After all, I've heard strange stories about almost every university campus I've ever visited. Maybe some of them do have that kind of information. On the whole though, I suspect that they are not looking to encourage student interest in ghost stories or legends regarding the campus. This is a shame, because I think it would make the site more interesting, not less. If I had been aware of such legends about the universities I attended when I was a student, that would make me more interested in my school, rather than being a largely apathetic commuter student. (OK, I was pretty involved as an undergraduate, namely because I had an amazing major department that kept us involved. But that's a digression.)

It's probably been almost 10 years since I went on the Chester (NJ) ghost tour. It was a big tourist draw for the town. I was working in a public library at the time, and I went to dinner with a group from work, and then went on the tour. The tour guide informed us that we were the second to last tour ever--they were closing it down. Why? The Chester Lions Club, which apparently has control over town events, said they no longer wanted it because it "attracted a bad element" to town. He then looked at us--who were mostly library staff and high school teachers--and said, "There you go, folks. You're a bad element." I guess that's where Chester's Mendham neighbor, NJ governor Chris Christie, got his idea that teachers were evil and must be destroyed.

Chester is a nice town, and I still like to visit there, but it's always been hard to deny the undercurrent of snobbery there. One might chalk up the Lions Club's assessment to that, but it really reveals a pervasive attitude among "polite" society. It goes back to what I've said about esotericism and mysticism--the religious are afraid because it may be "demonic", the non-religious are afraid of appearing mired in "superstition". Interest in "weird" and sometimes unexplainable happenings is often a guilty pleasure in "normal" people.

I think it's a sad fallout of demythologized society. We're convinced that science explains everything, so stories are no longer needed. Upper class social events in Victorian society (and earlier) often included the telling of ghost stories. In fact, it was a tradition at Christmastime. Some stories were just for fun, but today even the "true account" tales would be picked apart by skeptics. Certainly a large portion of them probably could be written off as imagination, or an illusion of some sort created by an external event. But there is a smug superiority we have about the unknown that really has its roots in fear. The reasonable mind cannot endure things that it can't explain. So, it has to find any explanation to keep from succumbing to fear. Fear of what? Probably that some of the unconscious myths that we reason away might have a grain of truth to them.

I think there's something of a sickness in this. Unconscious fear doesn't go away with reasoning alone. I think it's legitimate to want to explore these things--either for historical reasons, or to see if such things "really happen", and what they are. But our modern worldview doesn't allow for it; anyone who would take it seriously is seen as a crackpot. To be fair, I think discussion of such things has always been a bit taboo. In early societies, there was a great fear of the "other world", and only the shaman approached it. The shaman was revered, but also feared--he wasn't part of the rest of society. He was "other". In our modern, "non-superstitious" world, we've just exchanged one fear of the unknown for another one that's probably worse, because it tries to pretend that it doesn't have any "real" reality to it. The unknown and unexplained will always be with us, and pretending there is no such thing creates a psychological fracture.

It is interesting how culture has tried to balance this out. Shows like "Ghost Hunters" and others attempt to look at "paranormal" activity from a skeptical point of view, only giving credence to what can be recorded with equipment. That is not enough to satisfy skeptics, who will always say it is faked. But there is clearly an attempt to put together two myths--the old ones about ghosts and spirits, and more modern myths about truth that can be gained using technology as a medium. Such beliefs don't go away because they are integral to human consciousness, and our vehement dismissals of such things is foolish. As Aleister Crowley said, such priori considerations "have done more to retard the progress of science than any other form of human folly." It is foolish to think that we can absolutely "know" anything.

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