Archive for March, 2017

bed sheet phantom

Boo.

What follows is an article I wrote for a skeptic journal a dozen years ago. I re-discovered it a couple of days ago, brushed it off and prettied it up, and present it here. Enjoy.
Physicist Costas Efthimiou, a professor at the University of Central Florida, offers a theoretical glimpse that purports to put to rest the notion that the dead walk among us in spirit form: According to the laws laid down by Sir Isaac Newton, it is impossible for a non-physical entity to simultaneously walk upon surfaces and pass through solid objects, such as doors and walls; if a being is applying force to the ground in order to propel themselves, they therefore can’t pass through other solids without also falling through the floor. As a physical being, I know for a fact that I cannot pass through a floor, and I have walked into enough walls and doors to assume that I will have no chance of ever passing through, even if I were approaching Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station.
There are, however, several issues with his theories, foremost the idea that Newtonian laws pertaining to the physical world somehow apply to entities that do not exist in the corporeal realm. If ghosts are, as often hypothesized, beings constructed of memory, energy, and/or other non-physical materials, how then can we reasonably expect them to be bound by the same laws that us mere mortals by nature must adhere to?
The article then abruptly takes a sharp turn and notes that, according to a 2005 Gallup poll, approximately 1 in 3 Americans believe that houses can be haunted, and that it is possible to communicate with the dead. The impression I was left with, as a reader, was that the writer of the article really wanted to make the point that individuals who believe in the paranormal are rubes; an act of pseudo-intellectual elitism that served no good purpose at all.
Nearly every culture on Earth embraces some sort of belief system about the afterlife; why is this so? My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that no matter how technologically advanced we become, no matter how much science advances our understanding of the Universe and our place within it, no one as yet has been able to answer the biggest of all questions: Where do we go when we die? I think the question for most people is so staggering, so terrifying, that the average mind can’t comprehend the notion of our consciousness simply ceasing to exist. I certainly can’t, and believe me, I’ve tried. Or is it all just a matter of ego – is it a way of saying, “Hey, it’s ME we’re talking about here. I simply can’t accept the fact that when I die, that’s the end of the story.” Unable to accept the idea that the world keeps turning without them, many people need to believe that there is something amazing, something special, that was built just for them to ride out eternity.
So we create afterlife archetypes that conform to our particular sets of sensibilities, primarily that good people go on to a place full of happiness and joy, where they can spend eternity with all the people they loved on Earth, and the bad people move on to eternal punishment in the burning lake of fire, or something equally nasty. Is it possible that the ideas of Heaven and Hell are natural, physical constructs? It’s highly doubtful; history has proven time and again that good and evil are often highly subjective views of morality, and that nature rarely, if ever, makes a judgment call based on the moral qualities of an individual’s personality.
I believe that we, as humans, build our own ideas of existence beyond death from the twin factors of fear and justice. Not knowing what happens after we leave this physical realm, we still attempt to control our destinies and in this attempt, we create afterlives we can accept, that make sense to us. Also, we all want to be rewarded and remembered for the good things we have done, but we also desire that the guilty be punished, if only for the fact that by comparison, we look that much better. Never underestimate the power of humans to sandbag the next guy, especially when the possibility of eternal damnation is at stake.
And then there’s ghosts. The world in which we live is often a difficult and dangerous one; it can also seem quite unfair although that is again assuming that nature understands or even cares about the complexities of fair and unfair, of right and wrong. Many people die before we believe it is their time, and many good people often die in horrible and senseless ways; conversely, lots of truly awful people live long lives. In our uniquely human sense of cosmic justice, is it unreasonable to think that for those people, their earthly journey is not quite over? Not really. As moral creatures, we by nature feel that every person’s life has to have meaning and purpose and we are not very adept at accepting the idea that sometimes bad things just happen. I think that for many of us, it is more comforting to believe that the person who was taken by bad circumstance has been able to linger and exact some sort of spiritual revenge on those who were responsible for their misery, or even that since it wasn’t their time, they have nowhere to go and are stuck here on Earth in some sort of limbo. We take comfort in the idea that those who have left us are still around, that they’re watching over us or guiding us from beyond, that they miss us and still think about us.
It has been suggested that some ghosts and hauntings are the manifestation of guilt and anxiety; in Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, the story’s protagonist is not taunted by the person he murdered; rather, it is his guilt for the murder that haunts him and eats away at his sanity until he confesses his crime. Perhaps the only thing that is truly haunted is the mind and imagination of the individual who experiences the phenomena. If enough people are empathetic to the idea of the spiritual manifestation of the dead, particularly in a place where one could logically conclude that many people died horrible and unnatural deaths (battlefields, prisons, hospitals, sanitariums, mental institutions, etc.), it is entirely possible that there may exist a sort of shared psychological experience. However, this idea is by no means all-encompassing when attempting to explain the widespread reports and experiences of such phenomena.
Studies have indicated that people who are inclined to believe in ghosts stand a better chance of encountering one than people who don’t believe and if a person visits a location that is known for paranormal activity, then they already have a set of preconceived expectations before they even enter the area. Many years ago, I spent a summer working at a toy store in Northern California that had achieved a large amount of notoriety for having been haunted and in knowing this, I experienced a number of events that I immediately ascribed to the ghost which was said to be in residence. However, my mindset was not entirely objective: I like to believe that spirits do exist and since I was already aware of the alleged haunting, I was predisposed to believe that anything weird that happened was automatically due to the ghost and nothing more conventionally explainable.
And now, ghosts are big money: several cable networks run documentary series that show paranormal investigators plying their trade in places that, as previously mentioned, should be rife with paranormal activity. These shows run the gamut from earnestly sincere to the downright goofy, and I’m sure each have their devoted followers. That said, we faithfully watch them all, week after week, in hope of that one piece of evidence that will answer the question, once and for all. Maybe next week.
Many towns, at least the more touristy ones, offer local ‘ghost tours’ which, depending on the area, can be sort of fun, in a kitsch way, and you might even learn some history. As for ghostly encounters…individual results may vary. The demand for otherworldly thrills has also impacted the venerable Winchester Mystery House; again, in my early days, I worked briefly as a tour guide at the house. In those days, we were strictly forbidden to even suggest that  there might be spooks about; however, the attitude seems to have changed, because now the house hosts midnight tours, seances, and proudly proclaims itself to be haunted. And maybe it is, but I never experienced anything more than a freezing, drafty old house in San Jose in February.
Whatever the case, the chances are strong that we will probably never really know the answer of what happens until we actually die and so far, no one has come back to tell us about it. Harry Houdini, arguably the greatest illusionist and skeptic there ever was, on his deathbed, promised to make a spiritual return if it was at all possible, to prove once and for all if there is existence beyond our physical world, and this is a man who made passionate sport of exposing and debunking mediums, spiritualists, and cold readers.
For the sake of transparency, my wife and I live in a house where things happen, and the community in which we live is next door to a large Catholic cemetery. We have each been grabbed or touched, shadows have passed in front of light sources, unseen weights have settled down on our bed at night, and we often hear footsteps – heavy, human, footsteps. Something plays with one of our cats, in much the way that a child would. We had a team of paranormal investigators visit our home for two overnight sessions, and they produced evidence that can’t be readily explained away. One evening, the team dropped by to go over evidence from the weekend’s investigation, and during that conversation, footsteps directly overhead resulted in an impromptu investigation.
So, here we are, at the end of this, and I have no answers. The skeptic in me says that every bit of evidence has to be rigorously examined, while the believer in me wants to, well, believe. If you’ve read this far, thank you. I’m sorry to have left this unresolved, but perhaps in the next life we’ll see a conclusion to the story.
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hornIt was doomed from the start, man. There had been six of us, and we were the masters of the universe, bulletproof and straight up gangster. You know the names already. What matters, what you have to understand, is that when we started that thing, we meant to do good. To be good, and to inspire others to do good, too.

We wanted what everyone else wants: respect, friends, love. We wanted to take the love to the people, to show them that there was nothing to fear, no reason to hide, that we weren’t the monsters so many of them thought we were. And for a while, it worked.

I was the face of the movement. I never bought into the whole ‘Sad Clown’ mindset; I felt that this life of mine should reflect the joy, the gleeful chaos that ensued whenever I walked into the tent. That’s what I was all about. Fucking joy, even if I wasn’t always feeling it. So there’s my mug, all happy smiles and arched eyebrows, bald cap over a bright green monk’s cowl. You know me. You’ve seen the posters and I know you watch the news.

So we would assemble, faces already in place, and we’d go in to the hospitals. Find the terminal kids and give them some laughs. That’s what most of us did, anyway. Captain Fancypants and Sparkles would slip away and find the place where they kept the good drugs, the serious narcotics, locked up. It’s not like it is now; in those days, it was just a closet, sometimes marked, sometimes not. Moe had huge pockets inside those baggy pants of his, and that son of a bitch could empty a pharmacy in seconds flat. By the time the pharmacist realized they’d been hit, we were already down the road and besides, who’d suspect a clown?

Then, and this is the important part, we’d take the drugs to the people who needed it. Not the junkies or the dealers, but the good people who were in serious pain and couldn’t afford a hospital visit or a costly prescription. Yes, we stole, but we did good with it. So much good. The problem is that the more we saw of the people in need, the angrier we got with those who held the purse strings, who kept the stuff out of the hands of the needy and in the hands of the entitled. We were like Robin Hood, but with rubber chickens instead of bow and arrow.

We eventually came to realize that the hospitals were small potatoes, that if we really wanted to make a difference, we’d have to hit the manufacturing facilities where the meds were made. So that’s what we did. I won’t bore you with the details of the plan, but it was brilliant. I thought it was, at least.

We hit the plant at midnight, figuring no one would be there. We were clowns, for Christ’s sake; what did we know about security at major pharmaceutical companies? Basic tools, nothing else, aside from the duffel bags. I had no idea that Twitch brought explosives, or why. What the fuck, why bring bangers on a night raid? I thought he’d left that behind in favor of Clown Life. Twitch always had that nervous energy about him, even when he was in makeup. Edgy, like an electrical current was running through him. So we break in through a side door, find our way to manufacturing and holy shit, there are mountains of boxes of pills, everything you could imagine, and a ton more that you couldn’t. I head straight for the antibiotics, knowing that there were folks up in the hills who needed them badly, so badly.

Working quickly, we filled our pockets and bags while Bananahead kept a lookout. The thing was, we didn’t know there was a night watchman. It wasn’t his fault. I didn’t think it was our fault either, but I know better now. These guys come through the door with flashlights in hand, maybe with guns drawn or maybe not, and the whole damn thing went sideways. Bananahead loses his shit and starts yelling about power to the people and fuck the system, like we’re the goddamn Weathermen or something, despite us all being in our goddamn clown suits. The guards didn’t know what the hell to do. They were laughing, but at the same time they knew something was wrong because it’s the middle of the damn night in a drug company warehouse and there’s five goddamn clowns screaming at him, screaming at each other, and then one of the clowns pulls a giant lighter out of his pants and sparks the fuse on a stick of dynamite and next thing you know, there’s blood all over the place and the night is wrecked, just fucking wrecked. It’s gone to shit, like Reservoir Dogs in greasepaint.

We’re standing there in a daze, and the poor security guards are dead, so obviously and violently dead, and scattered all over the place, Bananahead is covered in blood and gore, and Captain Fancypants is sitting on the floor, head in hands, weeping and sobbing like a baby and next thing I know, the night is filled with the screaming of sirens. The door is kicked in and suddenly Twitch is just gone, his head explodes in a spray of pink and red, and Sparkles is thrown backward by the force of a shotgun blast and then it’s just me, all the rest are dead, and all the guns are pointed at me, and they’re all shouting and all I can do is stand there, shit-the-pants terrified, but this goddamn smile painted on my face makes them think I’m getting off on this and I’m shouting and they’re shouting, and when I try to take a step my shoe squeaks and I slip in a puddle of someone’s blood and land on my ass, which sets off the whoopee cushion and I realize then that it’s all over, that my life’s work is ended, my passion dead, because of this.This hopeless, stupid mess.

I wanted to help people. I wanted to spread laughter and hope. I’m lost. My friends are dead, and I’m going to prison for a long time, the big vacation, and for a moment, everything stops and I’m reminded what my old friend and mentor, Dingles, told me, so many years ago.

“Kid, no matter what you do,” he said, dead serious with the stink of grain alcohol on his breath. “Don’t ever do no shit that’ll end you up behind bars. Bad things happen to a clown in jail. Permanent things, awful things. Trust me, I know.” He had shivered at the recollection, and a silent tear had slid down his painted face. He didn’t think people could see when he cried, and most couldn’t. But I could, every goddamn time. No one hurts quite like a clown.

I can’t go to prison, I know I won’t survive, that no mercy is shown for Red Nosers like me. I have no choice, this is my destiny, right here, right now. I say when is when and enough is enough. Looking back, I never had a chance; this life, clown life, chose me from the very start. This is who I am, what I am. I pull my knife and slash my own throat, real fast. The spray erupts from me like seltzer from a bottle. As the life drains out of me, I hear the cops laughing.

Life is good.