23 March 2011

Haunted Hamilton, Ghostly Encounters, and the Anatomy of Scary Scenes

On Saturday evening, the night of the supermoon, Dave and I took a tour of the Customs House here in Hamilton, courtesy of a group called Haunted Hamilton. This building, built in 1858, first housed the federal centre controlling the flow of trade through our town. Now the building houses the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre, and I suppose you could go in there during the daytime to take a look at the building and the labour-related artwork that hangs in the galleries, but I suspect the only way to see the creepy third attic level and the weird little rooms in the basement is to go with a ghost tour.

I am a fan of local architecture and of old buildings in general, of which Hamilton has oodles. I couldn't resist the chance to traipse through the Customs House guided by someone in period costume who had lots of spooky stories to share.

There's a third story in this building that you can't see from the outside...spooky.

I have written before about my love of the paranormal and how I am really, really susceptible to anything scary, which is why I love horror as a genre. For me, a good scary story or spooky experience is as good as skydiving or climbing Mount Everest. I studied theatre and drama extensively in school, so any live performance or live storytelling is fun for me.

I loved this ghost walk because it wrapped all of these elements up in black silk with a big, shiny bow on top.  In the gallery, our guide, Lady Elizabeth, and her fellow ghost guides talked about the history of the building, its onetime status as a macaroni factory, as a school, as an abandoned, decrepit ruin, and its refurbishment as a martial arts studio. The story of the building underwrote all the other tales we heard that night.

The guides all talked about watching the large metal latches on the windows in the gallery swing of their own accord. Lady Elizabeth talked about people hearing the footsteps and laughter of children in the second floor hallway, of gruesome murders and dark deeds performed in and around the Customs House, and also of accidental deaths.

In one room, as we clustered around the dim light of Lady Elizabeth's kerosene lantern, I felt a light but persistent touch on my right leg just at my knee. The energies of the House shifted from downright oppressive in the main gallery to rich with history in the attic to almost explosive in the basement, especially in the one room with the creepy staircase that now goes nowhere, cut off in a renovation. The weight of history weighs heavy in the vault, the location of the burial of the Dark Lady, the Customs House's most famous ghost, and also the accidental burial of fifteen men, hobos who died in a cave-in as they tried to warm themselves in the tunnel that once led from the harbour to the house.

I was shit scared the entire time. It was awesome. So I'm writing this post with a double agenda: one, I want each and every one of you reading this to come visit Hamilton so I can take you on this ghost tour. Seriously, it will be a blast.

Two, I have been thinking about how to capture the spooky essence of ghost stories in fiction.

The thing about ghost stories is that they are basically just fragments of experience. All they tell you is that something weird happened to someone. The main character is always "a woman" or "a man." If you're lucky, you might get to hear the experiencer tell his or her own story, but you don't need to know anything specific about him or her to be scared, because the story is really about everyman / everywoman - i.e. you or someone like you. The context of the story is always "this really happened," even if the account has become fictionalized over time. The idea that regular reality could go suddenly off-kilter is, I think, why these tales are scary.

My question is, how can we get the same spook effect in our fiction? I find that a lot of horror produces gross-outs and takes me outside of the terms of polite society quite reliably (it's hard to teach zombies table manners), but it's a rare book that really haunts me, in the sense that it makes me feel scared to walk down the dark hallway between my bedroom and the bathroom in the middle of the night.

I remember some passages in Stephen King's It that did the trick. It's been a million years since I've read it, and I think I borrowed a library copy, so I don't have it on hand, but there was a scene where one of the kids (or more?) was looking through a photo album and one of the pictures changed. I think Pennywise, the evil clown antagonist showed up in the photo? Or something? (I doesn't sound that scary, but believe me, it was!) Much more strongly than the scene itself, I remember where I was when I read it: it was a summer during high school. I had stayed up super late to read. As events unfolded in the scene, I felt the world around me turning inside out. Even though I was sitting comfortably in my room in the warm glow of my cosy reading lamp, I remember feeling paralyzed, like I couldn't and shouldn't move, and I remember wishing that my bedroom window wasn't open - I suddenly felt totally vulnerable. I most definitely wished I hadn't chosen to stay up reading that book.

That was twenty-five years ago, probably. That's a long time to remember something so vividly. That's powerful stuff. I want to have that kind of effect on people, don't you?

There are some ways that a scene like that resembles the spine-chilling ghost stories told at the Customs House. King is great at building characters that are generic, everyman / everywoman sorts of people (without being boring - that's the real trick). Even if you don't feel a strong connection with that specific character, in a good scary scene, the character is often doing something totally normal that you have probably done, like looking through a photo album. The sudden swerve of reality into unfamiliar, potentially threatening territory is what creates, I think, the most powerful spook factor. Leaving aside the gah! clown! factor and the specific trappings of that scene from It, I'm thinking that maybe this is a workable formula: 1) establish a strong sense of normal, plain, everyday reality and 2) take the character out of that reality into somewhere else that has negative implications for his / her safety and wellbeing.

Maybe this is a good place to start. I'd love it if you all would share your scary stories / favourite scary moments from fiction. What do you think is scary? More importantly, why do you think it scares you?


Misha Gerrick said...

Sounds like a great ghost walk!

I also have a deep fascination with hauntings, so I would love to go on a tour like that.

Scary can be many things. Abnormal/paranormal in suburbia.
The inner workings of a serial killer's mind.
Those thoughts that everyone has but never acts on...

Nas said...

Scary, though it chills you but we love visiting haunted places, don't we? I would love to go on a tour like that. So next time I'm in Hamilton, can I ask you to take me?

BTW, I'm hosting Roland D Yeomans today, who self-published his book THE BEAR WITH TWO SHADOWS and is sharing his journey with us as well as a four book giveaway!

Annie Neugebauer said...

I've put a lot of thought into this very topic. Three passages stand out in my mind, all from Stephen King (2 from The Shining and 1 from Salem's Lot). They're all based on very primal fears, mostly rooted in childhood. And for me, what makes them scary is feeling the character's fear. A description of "something scary" isn't nearly as terrifying to me as a description of someone BEING scared.

Anyway, great topic. And I wish I could go on that ghost tour! =)

Elizabeth Twist said...

@Misha: if you're ever in Toronto, Hamilton is just a 45 minute drive away. Come on down!

@Nas: Absolutely, just come on by. Thanks for the heads up about what's going on over at your blog. Sounds great.

@Annie: Childhood fears are big, and yes, I think POV does enter into the formula somehow. King is also good at really sinking into a character's perspective on a scene, isn't he? Hm... And also, you should come to Hamilton!

I don't know if it's just my corner of the world, but I'm finding that there is a lot of interest in haunted houses / ghosts and ghost walks or tours these days. It's just a matter of finding the people who run them.

Witless Exposition said...

I love ghost tours! Especially the ones that also focus on the history as well. Any place that has a reputation as being haunted also has such a great history.

My King freak out moment was reading Salem's Lot late one night when my parents were out of town. Scared me silly!

I think you nailed it on the head though. The scariest things are those that are normal, but somehow touched by the paranormal.