Let's Talk About Ghosts, Part I  

Posted by Tony Hays in , , ,

Let’s Talk About Ghosts, Part I

I spent my teenage years in an old house that was built before the Civil War. Our den was in the original log cabin portion of the house, and in the summer, it had the best cross breeze. Often, my father would sleep on one couch and I would sleep on the other. One night, when I was about 16, I awoke suddenly. I looked down at the end of the couch and saw the hazy form of a woman in 19th century dress standing and staring at me.

Then she disappeared.

Had I seen a ghost? Or was I really still asleep and dreamed it? I couldn’t possibly tell you. But I believe that I really saw her.

Are ghosts real? I don’t know. But I do know that there are innumerable things in our world that we do not understand, yet. Consider the photo below. It was taken by a security camera at infamous Hampton Court Palace, built by the ill-fated Cardinal Wolsey who used the luxurious manor as a forlorn last bribe to Henry VIII to save his life. Anne Boelyn walked the corridors as did Catherine Howard.

Skeptics have tried to debunk the event, but the staff at Hampton Court have politely burst all their bubbles. They call the figure “Skeletor,” and he appears to be clothed in Tudor period clothing. The staff are adamant that such a costume has never been used by anyone there, and they further insist that no one was in that particular area of the building when the shot was taken. Actually, cameras caught two other strange incidents at this very door.

Often, debunkers are able to prove a simple explanation. On the southern edge of Kuwait City sits an abandoned royal palace. Rumor had it that the Iraqis used it as a prison/torture house during their occupation of the tiny Gulf emirate. Back in those days, I was friends with a group of half Kuwaiti/half American kids. We would slip into the compound at night (avoiding the little red flags marking landmines) and wander through the spooky old place. The stories of torture had some basis in fact. A number of the rooms had blood splattered on the walls. The girls always claimed that they could hear a baby crying, but it was really just the wind whipping through a sad, lonely relic. But, occasionally, there just isn’t a simple explanation. Like “Skeletor” at Hampton Court.

The numbers argue against there being nothing to the phenomenon called ghosts if nothing else does. Hundreds of thousands of people have had such experiences. Not all of them were just seeing things. Not all of them were simply lying. Life is energy. We do not completely understand the mysteries of energy. Perhaps, just perhaps, phenomena such as “Skeletor” are the flickering impressions of energy on the atmosphere. Perhaps events of enormous emotion leave reminders where they occurred. Just perhaps.

The Bell Witch  

Posted by Tony Hays

When I was a little boy, my brother, Ronnie, told me that if you dialed a certain telephone number, you would reach the Bell Witch of Adams, Tennessee and hear her screech. Dutifully and curious, I dialed the number as instructed. You did hear a screech, but I think it had more to do with telephone circuits than the supernatural. But, in Tennessee and throughout the country, the witch was a true phenomenon. Few houses back then didn't have a copy of the infamous Red Book, written by 19th century newspaper editor M.V.B. Ingram, that detailed the witch's treachery, beginning in 1817. Nearly 200 years have passed since its alleged first appearance, but the Bell Witch story is still alive and well, evidence the movie An American Haunting with Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek.

According to the basic story, a paranormal entity (exhibiting poltergeist-like behavior) harassed the John Bell family of Adams, Tennessee starting in 1817. The "witch," frequently called Kate, was particularly cruel to John Bell and his daughter, Betsy, being eventually credited with causing John's death. It was said to slap and pinch Betsy mercilessly. Once it caused John's tongue to swell so that he could neither speak nor eat. Apparently, though, it had a soft spot for John's wife, Lucy, once treating her to grapes (appearing from thin air) when she was sick. A disembodied voice would regale visitors of happenings in the neighborhood or repeating, word-for-word two sermons given at the same time, but miles apart. According to Ingram's account, it was phenomena witnessed by many in the community and was widely spoken of throughout the region. Spinoff stories told of Andrew Jackson's encounter with the witch. The witch remained until 1820 and the death of John Bell. It promised to return at a specific time in the future, which the Red Book says it did. Included in Ingram's book is an eyewitness account written by one of John Bell's sons.

All of that said, there are problems with the story. It's not like the David Lang story that I spoke of last week. John Bell and his family were unquestionably real, living exactly where they were alleged to have lived. A few years ago, I took it upon myself to annotate the Red Book, tracking down as many of the people mentioned as best I could. The people were real. Ingram's book contains numerous interviews with people who witnessed those long ago events or whose parents did, allegedly. But here's the thing. While north central Tennessee was still, truly, a frontier at the time of the events in question, there were area newspapers. Extant copies are silent on the Bell affair. It is alleged that the Saturday Evening Post ran an article on the story in 1849, but the issues for that year do not exist any longer and so can't be checked. Ingram's account did not appear until 1894. There are absolutely no corroborating documents to support the Andrew Jackson encounter.

But the families named did exist. Their descendants were living in the area at the time that Ingram's book was released. Were the entire affair fabricated by Ingram, I sincerely doubt that those descendants would all have remained unanimously silent. Somebody would surely have disputed the account, unless they too had been hearing the story their entire lives.

It is a mystery. And is destined to remain one. All that I can say with any certainty is that the world contains many things that we do not understand, and most probably will never understand. This may be one of them.

(Thanks to my friend Woodson Marshall for prodding me on this.)

Of Man and Myth and History  

Posted by Tony Hays

Often, I'm reminded of Abraham Lincoln's old dictum: "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time." And, of course, there's George W. Bush's attributed quote on the same question: "You can fool some of the people all the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on." In the course of my research on various topics, I'm often amazed at what people accept as the absolute truth without a speck of proof.

For many years, one of the oddest stories in human experience was that of David Lang. Lang, a farmer in Sumner County, Tennessee during the 1870s and 1880s, was out in a field near his home one soft, spring evening, just before sundown. As the rattle of a buggy sounded on the lane, he looked up to see his brother-in-law and a local judge riding towards the house, where his wife and children were outside as well. Lang started across the field to meet his visitors. And then something truly bizarre happened.

Lang disappeared in full view of the judge, the brother-in-law, his wife and children.

A full-fledged search was launched, but no trace of David Lang was ever seen again. That winter, the children noticed that at the very spot where their father was last seen, the grass had turned yellow in a perfect circle. They claimed that, once, they heard the distant sound of their father, calling for help.

In the 1950s, the story reached worldwide circulation through the writings of Frank Edwards, whose Amazing But True books were widely read. Reader's Digest carried the story in the 1970s. The Disney Channel also ran a program on the story. Always presented as the truth.

But there was a real problem.

David Lang never existed. Sumner County records show no Lang family at the time in question. Indeed county officials in Sumner County are still at a loss to explain how the story came to be universally accepted as fact. The judge cited could not be found. It was, completely and totally, a tall tale, but one that fooled not only a lot of people, but Reader's Digest, which has always boasted a world-class fact checking department.

Nobody checked the facts until long after the tale was in wide circulation. And even then, people refused to believe that it was made up. In actuality, it is virtually word for word a copy of Ambrose Bierce's 1909 short story "The Difficulties of Crossing a Field."

For me, the story of David Lang (or non-story) is a cautionary tale, reminding me to never accept anything at face value.

When Does History Surrender to Fiction?  

Posted by Tony Hays

I wrote recently about going to locations you were writing about. Another constant question concerns the integration of history and fiction. When does history take a backseat to the story or vice versa? In other words, when do we ignore the facts in favor of the fiction?

An old friend of mine, the late Dr. Frank B. Williams III, professor emeritus of history and former department chair at East Tennessee State University, often told the story of the so-called Battle of Mud Run in Savannah, Tennessee. It was a tongue-in-cheek appellation as the event in question centered around the day the Union gunboats first appeared on the Tennessee River at Savannah. There was no battle, but all the Confederates and Southern sympathizers panicked and fled, turning unpaved Main Street into a long "mud run." With a twinkle in his eye, Frank would regale his class, recounting how one of his ancestors, hobbled by a wooden peg-leg, made it ten miles out of town before he stopped. "That peg-leg is still in the family," Williams would say, "and it's still got mud on it from the Mud Run." Naturally, some credulous student would query, with mouth agape, "Really?" Dr. Frank would smile and say with a wink, "never let the facts get in the way of a good story." The phrase has almost become a cliché, but there is some truth in it. In the broader view.

But readers of historical fiction are some of the most demanding in the world. They are sophisticated readers, intelligent, who readily see the difference between "literary license" and factual errors. They will be the first to tell you when you've made a blunder. Quite frankly, I've seen more historical novels trashed in reviews for inaccuracy in their historical detail than for any flaw in the story. And that is the audience for which we write. Dedicated, demanding, and constantly challenging the writer to educate and entertain them. It is frequently said, "history makes good history." History is real life. Real life is surrounded by jagged edges and unfinished sentences. Those are what writers of historical fiction have to work with and around as they try to fashion a story from the flotsam and jetsam of reality.

Gore Vidal wrote in his author's note to Burr that he occasionally moved people and events around as the story needed. Indeed, he admitted to resurrecting someone long dead because he needed that particular person at that particular point in the story. That, I think, is the key. Hemingway once said that you could leave something out of a story if you knew what you were omitting and why. The reader will sense that and accept it. But if you leave something out because you don't know what goes there, said Hemingway, the reader will sense it and it will become a hole, a gap in the story. The same principle, I believe, applies to accuracy in historical fiction. As Vidal points out, if you move things around because you need them to be altered, and you know that's what you are doing, that's okay. The key in historical fiction is letting the reader know that you've changed things in an afterword or author's note. Then it becomes an error of design, not faulty research.