The Lunatic Asylum

For the last episode of a scary Rambling Harbor this Halloween, I want to tell you a true story that happened to me.

Sometime around 1974 in the spooky month of October, on a clear cold night around 1 a.m., I was driven up a narrow winding road in a rural, out-of-the-way location. The road led up to what I later learned was called Hawthorne Hill. I wasn’t sure why I was being taken up this hill, and I have to say I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. The driver remained completely silent, a small smile escaping from the corner of her mouth. Had she been sealed in secrecy by some demon? Oh, the power of one’s imagination on a haunting New England night!

Nearing the top of the hill, I could see the twisted figures of leafless trees dancing against the sky, old abandoned buildings hiding not just their past but their present, a dim light coming from a smaller building still in use—but for what demonic purpose?  With that thought, as suddenly as cold wind chills the body, a feeling of death covered me. I knew people had been brought here and died horrible deaths, buried in the woods with nameless markers. Still I had no idea why I had been taken here.

My driver was a woman I had known for only a few weeks who had come to America from Sweden as a stowaway on a tramp steamer, and what did I really know about her? Did some horrible death await me as it had others she may have brought here?  Again, the power of imagination on a cold clear haunting New England night!

My friend, knowing my part-time fascination with the supernatural and macabre, had driven me to see “The Lunatic Asylum.”

Danvers State Hospital was a place so scary that the 2001 movie Session 9 was filmed there.  (If you want to see a good scary move for Halloween, Session 9 is it!) Danvers State Hospital has gone by many names over the years—the State Lunatic Hospital, Danvers State Insane Asylum, and even Hell House on the Hill. There were reports that inhumane shock therapies and lobotomies were used on humans—Danvers Lunatic Asylum is known as the birthplace of the lobotomy—and experimental drugs and straitjackets were used to keep the crowded hospital under control.  How many people are buried on the grounds and what horrible deaths brought their lives to an end will never be told but are perhaps reflected by the dancing trees and the walls of the old buildings. I can tell you that the feeling I had about the place that night had nothing to do with my imagination.

 After being closed for many years, the Danvers State Hospital site has been redeveloped as luxury apartments, but stories are still told about unexplained voices and images, and the only thing left of the asylum is the cemetery and the nameless markers.

Join me on the shores of Rambling Harbor as we wrap up our tribute to Halloween.




An Illusion Called Time

The old one stands proud and beautiful in the moonlight. Such great beauty often hides deep secrets. Softly she rocks on the water, her bones groaning but still strong. The very bones are the timbers that rejected the British cannonballs in the war of 1812, defeating four of their best warships, the timbers on which 308 sailors lost their lives and gave their bones to mingle in Old Ironsides forever. The voices of those long gone have been heard to speak in whispers, and visions of a young cabin boy have been seen. Do souls still linger on the ship they loved and died for? Many say they still walk the planks of Old Ironsides, the USS Constitution. It is reported that some sailors refuse to descend into the lower decks at night, fearing that would send them hurling through time and space into her resting past—or is it resting?

While sailors may be reluctant, I have a group of friends that went running (pardon the expression) hell bent to investigate these bumps in the night and disembodied voices, the vision of the boy and the eerie knowledge that these souls were indeed still protecting their beloved ship. My friends are well known as S.P.I.R.I.T.S. of New England and are the only crew who have been allowed to spend the night on Old Ironsides.  While investigations of this type never contain absolute proof, I know this group well enough to believe they have probably experienced what the sailors who would rather stay above deck fear. You can check them out here http://spiritsofnewengland.org/

My friends believe that the souls they encountered were as curious about them as they were about the spirits. Curious about them, hmm, curious about them—it makes me wonder if there is truly overlapping time. Are these souls people just living in their own space and place in whatever great design there is? Could it be we are the spirits and don’t know it? Is our time being visited by those from some distant future or past world? Are they paranormal investigators, hundreds of years into tomorrow, trying to understand why there are voices from the year 2014? Are we the present, the past, the future, or all of these at once?

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells was instrumental in moving the concept of time travel to the forefront of the public imagination, but it is well known that Einstein, in his theory of relativity, sited that time travel was possible. Einstein said he wished he could ride a lightning bolt, and then he would move fast enough to travel through time. (What Albert planned to use as a saddle is unknown.)

Perhaps there are no so-called spirits, just different people living in different periods in the illusion of a man-made system of counting minutes, hours, and days called time.

I hope you will spend a little time on the shores of Rambling Harbor with me as we continue to explore spooky October.




Blood on the Moon: The Day of Darkness

May 19, 1780, was the Day of Darkness. On that day, the sun rose as usual in the town of Boston, Massachusetts.  A few dark clouds hung off to the west, which was not considered unusual as many storms move in from the west, but this morning seemed different.  The air had a different feel, and those dark clouds kept moving closer and closer. By 1 p.m. total darkness had spread from New York to Boston.

Roosters began crowing as if saying goodbye, and not good night, to the world. People feared the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were riding behind those clouds. In order to compensate for the darkness in the middle of the day, people lit lanterns, but instead of the usual glow, the lanterns gave off a greenish color.

Night was no different from daytime. There was no moon, and no stars were visible, but if you were still awake at 1 a.m. and looked out windows, you could see a blood-red moon rising. Soon stars would follow, and by the next morning, the sun was at its brightest best.

The Day of Darkness really did happen. According to Professor Samuel Williams of Harvard College, the darkness was seen at least as far north as Portland, Maine, and extended southward to New Jersey. For several days before that day, the sun appeared to be red in New England and the sky yellow.

What brought on this Day of Darkness? Was it an atmospheric phenomenon, or something stranger still? To this day, no theory fully explains the events of May 19, 1780.

The most recent Blood Moon was on October 7­-8, after I wrote this. Come ashore and find out if I’m still here, or if I’m now wandering the shores of Rambling Harbor with old Blunderbuss Billy, looking for sunken rum ships.



“Monster Mash”-ing in the Marsh

They are mashing in Rambling Harbor, that is,  doing the “Monster Mash,” which was the number 1 hit for Bobby "Boris" Pickett & the Crypt-Kickers in 1962. There are a lot of songs either about Halloween itself or the spooky dark side of life or not life, the ifs, and just maybes. It is even rumored that the ghost of old Blunderbuss Billy dances around in the moonlight. Most people have a spooky story or two, some passed down for many generations. My father use to tell a story of seeing a woman around dusk in an open field who after he walked by and turned back a few seconds later was no longer there, and there was nothing to hide behind. I have heard enough “ghost stories,” if you will, to start thinking yeah, just maybe, sure.

The people of Rambling Harbor are most likely descendants of prehistoric Paleo-Indians who lived in eastern North America at the end of the last Ice Age, some 15,000-30,000 years ago. A midden mound, which is a deposit containing shells, animal bones, and other refuse, has been found that indicates the site of a human settlement. Also fishing weirs, which are wooden fence-like structures built to catch fish, have been discovered in the city of Boston.  Much of Boston is landfill and Boylston Street is pretty much the center of the city and nowhere near water today, but a fish weir was found there.

Not far from where I call home, wedged between the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the foggy bogs in back where at night the coyotes play, owls hoot, and mourning doves cry, is a Native American burial ground. In fact there are several such sacred places around Rambling Harbor. Rambling Harbor was settled around 1630, and some of the original houses are still standing, no doubt inhabited by spirits. It’s easy to imagine ancient souls roaming along the shore at night, perhaps looking for the rum ship sunk by Blunderbuss Billy so long ago.

Here’s a quick quiz and pretty easy, I guess. Do you know what the number 1 scary song is? Get ready for this…. It’s “Thriller,” which hit number 4 on the Hot 100 in 1984 and is the most downloaded Halloween-themed song of all time with digital sales to-date of 3.4 million, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

I still think my all-time favorite is “Monster Mash,” which is so much fun for the tone deaf to sing. But the scariest song has to be "Dragula” by Rob Zombie, one of the spookiest musicians ever.  Look at the video. It is whacked, crazy, weird, and unsettling, and it is the number 10 most downloaded scary Halloween song of all time.

There are more shadowy thoughts on the shores of Rambling Harbor. Join me there, but watch out for my plant, Audrey 2.5. She’s ok as long as she’s not hungry. 



Psycho Spam

Remember the song Psycho”?  It was written by Leon Payne, an incredibly good songwriter who wrote many top hits for country singers. He was known as the blind country balladeer, partly because he was blind and partly because he was a country balladeer. The song was actually inspired by a particular incident.

In 1966, a man named Charles Whitman strangled his mother to death, stabbed his wife, and then headed to the top of the University of Texas library tower and opened fire on an unsuspecting crowd, using his Marine Corps sniper rifle, killing sixteen people. Whitman was gunned down by police.

Apparently Whitman complained for a long time about headaches and strange feelings, and an autopsy later revealed he had a brain tumor. On the day he purchased his rifle, Whitman also bought a can of Spam.

The version of “Psycho” that inspired Elvis Costello’s version was recorded by Jack Kittel, although George Jones (yes, that George Jones) and Eddie Noack both recorded it previously. In the remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho, the song was recorded by Teddy Thompson.

Now, about getting smaller (I have derailed again. I tend to do that, and some readers think I’ve gotten weird, if not psycho, as well. I ask them to assure the newbies that they may continue reading without losing any more grip on reality than they are willing to lose). I moved from a big place to a small place, and in that process I parted, sometimes happily, sometimes with tears, with things that have been held precious for generations from many childhoods.  Many things belonged to my wife Jennifer who got her wings on September 25, 2011. No one wanted the things she had held dear, and I did not have room for them. Some things were donated, but others, like an old clay pot, are now landfill and giving back to the earth. My possessions are fewer, my struggle for money is less important than breaking the shackles of dependence on material things, and my life is simpler.  In a world of belonging and longing, I have gotten smaller.  Getting smaller is not age-reliant, but it is one of the benefits of getting older, and I will say that getting smaller can make you feel bigger. Ridding yourself of Stuff is cathartic. When you tell that to someone attached to their stuff, they may indeed think you’re psycho.

Anyone paying attention to the Charles Whitman story would have quickly seen that someone buying both a gun and spam had issues, but isn't a lot of material stuff a little like spam? No one really likes it or knows what it is, but everyone has had it at one time or another.

So, what part did “Psycho” play in this piece?  Really, none. As I said, I derailed myself, but I’m sure it made things more interesting than 500 words on landfill, and there is nothing like adding a bit of information to my esoteric ramblings on life.

There’s more on Spam on the shores of Rambling Harbor.  I hope you’ll join me there.


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