16.11.11

GHOSTLY CREEPY HAUNTINGS!

Jeff Belanger. The World's Most Haunted Places. New Page, 2011.
Bob Curran. The World's Creepiest Places. New Page, 2011.
Jim Harold. Jim Harold's Campfire True Ghost Stories. New Page, 2011

I'm not too sure what the exact difference is between 'most haunted' and 'creepiest', even after reading the first two volumes reviewed here, as they cover the same sorts of places and stories in the same way. Although both 'Creepy' and 'Haunted' describe hauntings in classical locations like old castles, spooky churchyards and crumbling mansions, many of the most interesting accounts relate to more contemporary and less traditional locales.

New Page is an American publisher, so the emphasis is on American locations, but both books give a fair bit of coverage to places in Britain and Europe. Bob Curran was born and now lives in Northern Ireland, so he gives somewhat greater coverage to creepiness on this side of the Atlantic, with several cases from his native island. Both books give often quite detailed accounts of the history of the places they describe, and in most cases show the way in which the ghost legend has mutated over the decades.

American orphanages, hospitals and sanatoriums seem to be great generators of spookiness, with abandoned buildings in remote places accruing legends of screaming children, mad doctors and the terrifying results of medical experiments lurking in wooded areas across the country. The abandoned buildings, and abandoned creatures represent the disturbing fears, social, political, scientific, the threat of 'aliens' of all forms, and the worry that our comfortable existence depends on a great number of things that we would rather not know about. In the daylight world we wish these things would just disappear, but we know that they will always lurk around the edges, ready to come lurching back if our defences of rationality and reason fail for a moment.

Many of the stories in both 'Creepiest' and 'Most Haunted' are of what Bill Ellis christened 'Legend Trips' - places which have become the focus of visits by groups of young people seeking a spooky thrill at a well-known haunted spot, and developing the legend as they do so. Perhaps the most remarkable case recorded here, in Bob Curran's book, is the small settlement of Stull, Kansas. Here, for no historical reason at all, other than perhaps because its name sounds a bit like 'skull', a bizarre legend has developed that the abandoned Emmanuel Church covered a gateway to Hell. Helped along by films like The Exorcist, the hamlet attracted crowds of teenage visitors at Halloween, who eventually had to be barred from entering by the local police.

Stull is an example of just how remarkable little is needed to create a 'haunted' location. In fact some places seem desperately to need a haunting, and it's noticeable how many of the 'Most Haunted' sites also happen to be hotels, bars, or tourist attractions. Given time anywhere can develop its neatly crafted haunting. Bob Curran's account of the mysterious disappearance of the lighthouse keepers of the Flannan Isles certainly brought a shiver to my spine, but mostly because it evoked forgotten memories of my grandmother reciting William Gibson's poem about the mystery, in her gas-lit kitchen when I was aged about eight!

The stories in Jim Harold's book are anything but neatly crafted, and are the largely unmediated, 'It Happened to Me' type of narrative that features in Fortean Times each month. Jim Harold is the producer of an on-line radio show, and these stories are sent to him by his listeners. Of course, almost everyone knows what a ghost-story should be like, and many of the tales here try to conform to that template. However it is much easier to see the raw account in these two or three page first-person accounts, than in the 'authorised' versions in the other two books.

Although Harold divides the stories up into a few basic categories, most of the narratives in this book would turn out quite differently if they were collected by a ghost hunter, a cryptozoologist, a ufologist, an abductionist or a SPR researcher. Most of all these three entertaining books demonstrate the extent to which the supernatural has been commodified in contemporary Western culture. -- John Rimmer.

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