Sunday, August 29, 2010

Five Famous Ghosts

Last night I spent several hours at a friend's house, watching and listening for word from The Other Side.

I have to be careful about how I discuss this. My friend does not need ghost-hunters showing up at the front door, and last night's proceedings were subject to some kind of confidentiality agreement whose details I don't know. But I went into the evening with an open mind, and nothing that happened last night makes me any less open to the idea that places might be haunted.

What haunting is, I still don't know, but their existence follows logically from the first law of thermodynamics: energy cannot be created or destroyed, but is merely converted from one form to another. Human beings channel a lot of energy, particularly in times of extreme stress. Theaters are almost always haunted, I think, because the energy expended in performance lingers; the ghosts in theaters aren't those of actors, but those of characters.

The question of whether ghosts have consciousness and agency (the ability to act on their desires) is something I'm still agnostic on, though I'm willing to believe they do. The last house I lived in before I left Washington was haunted by a benign female presence who was curious about modern styles, and particularly about modern beauty products. My makeup case was rifled a few times, and I once came in from the backyard to find my blowdryer plugged in and turned on, though no one was in the house.

Tell me about your own experiences of ghosts in the comments section. Here are five well-known ones:

1. Catherine Howard, Hampton Court, England. The fifth wife of Henry VIII was beautiful, young, and foolish. Charged with infidelities she was probably guilty of, she broke away from her guards and ran screaming toward her husband's chambers, begging for mercy. The guards caught her and dragged her away, still screaming, through what is now called the Haunted Gallery. People have reported seeing her and hearing her. I've been to Hampton Court, and found the Haunted Gallery creepy, but that might have been because I already knew this story.

2. Abraham Lincoln, The White House, Washington, DC. President Harry Truman was convinced that Abraham Lincoln haunts the White House, and no less a witness than Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands reported having seen him. Lincoln himself told his aides, not long before his assassination, that he had had a dream of walking the White House after his own death.

3. Ulysses S. Grant, The Willard Hotel, Washington, DC. The Willard Hotel is my least favorite public place in Washington, and I avoid it if I can. Its atmosphere feels thick with rage and frustration and sorrow; whether those belong to the ghosts or the people who frequent it now, I couldn't say. My guess is that most old hotels have more than one ghost, since people check into hotels at times of grief, anger, illicit passion, and despair. Ulysses S. Grant spent most of his business days as President in the Willard's lobby, where the constant flow of people asking him for things led to the coining of the word "lobbyist." They say you can still smell his cigar smoke.

4. Montgomery Clift, The Roosevelt Hotel, Los Angeles. Montgomery Clift lived in Room 928 of the Roosevelt Hotel during the filming of From Here to Eternity (1953). He died 13 years later, in New York City; maybe the Roosevelt Hotel was the time and place he was happiest. People say he still walks the hallways, reciting his lines, and plays the trumpet late at night. Marilyn Monroe's ghost is supposed to haunt the Roosevelt, too.

5. Al Capone, Alcatraz. Alcatraz's most famous inmate lived for eight years after he got out of prison, but his health failed badly while he was in prison, as syphilis started to eat at his brain. He was afraid he'd be killed if he took recreation in the prison yard, so got permission to practice his banjo in the shower room; people have said they still hear a banjo there sometimes. I've never been to Alcatraz, and am not likely to go when I visit San Francisco in October. If any place is likely to be haunted, it's a prison: all that rage, all that sorrow, all those thwarted desires. No thanks.


Anonymous said...

Didn't Richard Nixon sometimes get drunk and talk Lincoln's ghost -- as well as the pictures of other former presidents in the hall of portraits -- while living in the White House?


AnswerGirl said...

I don't remember that story, but man, I hope it's true.

Anonymous said...

Turns out I was remembering a first season SNL skit ( that had more than a little basis in truth. Googling "Richard Nixon drunk White House" turned up more than a few news and official reports about Nixon being too "indisposed" to take after-5 pm state phone calls.

-- Ed

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I have some really creepy experiences with ghosts, and yes, count me as one of the believers! My most frightening one was when I was about twelve-years-old and I was hanging out with a friend and we decided to make our own Ouija Board -- basically the alphabet on a piece of paper, yes and no in the corners, and a small cut out paper triangle. Let's just say that there wasn't anyone else in my house and the dimmer switch was right behind me. When I asked if anyone was there, and if they could lower and raise the light to prove that they were there, it immediately was done...there wasn't anyone in the house, and where we were set up (dining room) was in a spot where you could see people coming in or out and certainly would hear someone walk around! Still freaks me out...

Karen Olson said...

Alcatraz is definitely a must-see, if you can manage it. Fascinating place. And a lovely ferry ride.

Catherine Howard definitely was guilty of the infidelities, but she was a teenager and I'm not surprised people can still witness her hysterics.

Chip said...

I'm a believer, too.

Just after my maternal grandfather died, much of his furniture was shipped to my uncle's house in Texas. My uncle was also the executor of the estate, as my grandmother suffered from dementia. (I don't think she ever really knew her husband was dead. We told her, but she just started calling my dad by her husband's name.) Along with the furniture appeared a cat, which moved right in with the furniture. This cat particularly liked my grandfather's chair, and when family members called my uncle, the cat would sit and listen attentively -- but ONLY for family.

Several years later, the cat just disappeared. A few days later, my mother was asleep on the couch and awoke to dishes rattling in the kitchen. The first thought in her head was "Daddy," and the rattling stopped. Two days after that, my mom's sister was sitting in her living room reading a book. She looked up, and my granddad was sitting across the room from her, then disappeared.

The next Sunday, after church, my parents went to visit my grandmother in the nursing home, as they did every Sunday. While they were there, my grandmom looked PAST my dad, got a HUGE smile on her face, and died. My grandfather's ghost never visited us again.

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

Chip -- that is so cool!!

Anonymous said...

Ditto on Alcatraz! The audio tour is a lot of fun and a great insight.

AnswerGirl said...

That's a great story, Chip. Thanks for sharing!