|prospect: an anthology of creative nonfiction, spring 2007|
|by Alex Eichler '08|
2007 Casey Shearer Memorial Award for Excellence in Creative Nonfiction: First place
What's in the shadows of Rhode Island?
Rhode Island, like any New England state, has both a wealth of history and a restless entrepreneurial spirit, and if neighborhood tours are your thing, Providence is a place of endless diversion. Roger Williams settled here; the Gaspée burned not far down the coast; the Brown family alternately profited from and worked to abolish the slave trade with the same fevered enthusiasm with which the manufacturing industry would later power the city. You can see the streets where race riots broke out in the 1820s, or the speakeasies where bootlegger Danny Walsh ran his empire until his disappearance, or the grocery store where Rudolph Marfeo was killed by the mob. It's a small state with a high concentration of past.
The haunted houses, of which the greater Providence area boasts more than its share, seem the logical conclusion of all this pileup; sensational deaths are sure to produce a few ghosts. Several have been reported on Benefit Street, an apparent marvel of colonial preservation just off the Brown University campus, including a spectral horse-drawn carriage and the wandering shade of Edgar Allen Poe, who unsuccessfully courted the Providence poet Sarah Helen Whitman shortly before his death. (Lovecraft also made his home in Providence for many years, for those who are keeping score.) The area's long history of violent conflict between colonists and Native Americans-Providence was burned nearly to the ground during King Philip's War, and Mary Rowlandson's daughter eventually fetched up here-has littered the state with sites of torture and death, including a patch of woods in Cumberland where nine militiamen were skinned alive and beheaded. At the Fairfield Inn, a see-through woman in a tri-corner hat stands in one of the lower rooms in the evenings and mumbles insensibly. Near the Woonsocket Reservoir, a faceless man wanders back and forth in the moonlight.
Some of these sites are on well-traveled tour circuits, and receive thousands of daytime visitors each year. Many others are virtually unknown at a distance of ten miles, infamous only by the testimony of a few witnesses. As haunted-house tourism is something of a porous arena-anyone, after all, can report a ghost sighting and get three friends to back them up-the word of some kind of authority is comforting to many. Hence the Rhode Island ghost-hunter trade, a well populated and mostly ignored facet of society that diligently tracks and documents the state's frequent brushes with the otherworldly. They are sometimes quoted in the "Offbeat" section of local newspapers, or sought for sound bites around Halloween, but their work occupies twelve months out of the year, and they take what they do seriously.
In some ways, it's not an auspicious moment for parapsychology. Princeton University recently announced that its Engineering Anomalies Research lab will soon close after 28 years of exploring the data on ESP and telekinesis; a University of Maryland physicist, expressing his relief, called the lab "an embarrassment to science." "MythBusters," the Discovery Channel program on which urban legends are subject to painstaking scientific scrutiny, does not address paranormal phenomena as a matter of policy, but its runaway success suggests that rapt credulity is still an unfashionable attitude among young television viewers. Readers, too: Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, an uncompromising defense of atheism, had been on the Times bestseller list for twenty-two weeks at the time of this writing, while Skeptical Inquirer, a bimonthly magazine committed to the interrogation of parascience, maintains a steady circulation of about 50,000.
Yet there is something defensive about many of these proud and public doubters, a sense that all their efforts are really just a reaction against a more popular way of thought, and this is far from without a basis in reality. Skeptical Inquirer's fifty thousand subscribers might put stock in the withering power of the lab test, but one need not look very hard to find equal or greater numbers of people for whom the assumptions and conclusions of science are problematic at best. This kind of thinking has been around for generations, but today's national political atmosphere seems to favor it particularly; the present administration shows little patience for scientific counsel of any kind, from climatologists to health officials, and the status of evolution in American curricula remains precarious. It's easy to forget the extent to which our culture is shaped and informed by persistent myths, from the odious (a gay couple raising a child will do irreparable harm to that child) to the benign (anyone can grow up to be President). Credulity is one of America's most abundant resources, and no small part of it goes toward the empirically unprovable.
This is as true in matters of religion and spirituality as anything else, although here we should note that not all spirits are created equal. One does not want to draw a direct parallel between, for example, national church attendance and the adoration given to figures like John Edward, host of "Crossing Over"; the relationship between a man and his God is not really comparable to that of a man and his TV. Still, it is a matter of record that religion plays a greater role in the lives of United States citizens than anywhere else in the developed world. Rhode Island is no exception; the state is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, a demographic quirk that makes itself felt in most aspects of daily life. In Providence and in America, we all tend to believe in at least a few things we haven't personally seen; most of us manage to lead normal lives without undue paranormal complication, while some see amputated legs in the hallway mirror, or notice that the number 93 seems to be following them around. Fortunately, there are resources in place.
Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, who met through their day jobs at a local Roto Rooter franchise in the early nineties, are the founders and public faces of what is probably Rhode Island's best known ghost-tracking group, the Atlantic Paranormal Society (usually abbreviated as TAPS). Hawes began TAPS in 1990; Wilson joined two years later. Today the organization, based in Warwick, is a loose constellation of investigators, technicians, and quasi-official enthusiasts. The group's website strikes the visitor as somewhat less than professional-a cartoon ghost is shown dashing away at the top of the page as text like "HERE, GHOSTIE, GHOSTIE" and "WHEN DEAD UNCLE FRED JUST WON'T GO HOME" flickers on and off-but the TAPS reputation has spread; Hawes and Wilson have been called as far as Florida, New Orleans and Ireland in their capacity as paranormal maintenance men. A third season of their reality show "Ghost Hunters," of which a typical episode is about equal parts interviews, night-vision footage, and grouchy banter between Hawes, Wilson and technicians, is currently running on the Sci-Fi Channel.
TAPS is fairly well known beyond the insular parapsychology community, and advertises itself as the go-to team for New England haunting inquiries. Both Hawes and Wilson command a certain salty New England charm, and Wilson in particular has a boyish enthusiasm for the fantastic that is hard to dislike. (He has been working on a series of fantasy novels since age twelve, and says the finished collection will come to about twenty thousand pages). TAPS has attracted criticism for not approaching its subjects with an adequate degree of skepticism-in the course of their investigations, Hawes and Wilson rule out paranormal activity only about eighty percent of the time, which scientists call unacceptably low-but the personalities of its leading men, plus a deft editing department at Sci-Fi, usually carry the program and give the Society at least the appearance of savoir-faire.
Since the debut of "Ghost Hunters," Wilson and Hawes have achieved something of a cult status in their home state, and despite their regular-guy television demeanor, they can be difficult to get a hold of. More accessible is the Rhode Island Paranormal Research Group; established in 1980, it is the oldest such organization in the state. TRIPRG, as it calls itself, allows tagalongs on its expeditions, which are impressively wide-ranging; without cable executives to whom they must answer, TRIPRG investigators have a bit more latitude to go questing into the minor corners of New England, chasing down whatever they find interesting. (They have been out to an abandoned military training ground at Fort Wetherill, for example, and taken pictures of what they call "a paranormal manifestation of an entity," which looks like mist.) The group's founder, Andrew Laird, with whom I exchanged a series of friendly e-mails, is a solidly built, handlebar-mustachioed man in his late forties. Laird holds degrees in psychology and creative writing, and his is the manner of a man for whom no question is ever too simple or too complicated to look into. His page on the TRIPRG website includes the following bit of wisdom:
Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving
safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in
sideways, chocolate in one hand, wine in the other, body thoroughly
used up, totally worn out and screaming, "WOO HOO . . . what a ride!"
Laird's gung-ho attitude and apparently limitless curiosity seem characteristic of the group as a whole; the website's roster of senior members and regular investigators resembles nothing so much as a Superfriends montage-the clairvoyant massage therapist, the psychic with Native American lineage, the computer whiz with a thirst for knowledge. (There is even a dog, Scooby, who was given full investigator status in 2005.) It's all very charming, though there is something slightly suspect about the undisguised amateurism of groups like TRIPRG and TAPS; the impression one receives, of a society of enthusiastic and not terribly professional Joes Sixpack, can seem at times the product of conscious calculation. A typical episode of "Ghost Hunters" will feature at least three or four establishing shots of the TAPS headquarters, which are a trailer in someone's backyard. Since these shots are always accompanied by a graphic explaining that we are looking at the TAPS headquarters, it's hard not to feel after a while that we are being telegraphed some kind of message about Wilson and Hawes's blue-collar credibility.
Still, passion and curiosity like Laird's and like the TAPS team's are hard to manufacture, and the average ghost hunter's command of local history, even harder to fake, is often exceptional. Ghosts are, after all, a sort of archive of a place, and in order to chase one you have to know the turf. What one reads into accounts of late-night field trips to haunted houses is a deep affection for Rhode Island, a strong investment in the people that came before and the history that never quite fades from memory. This may be the problem.
America is lousy with regional tales of horror. The Wendigo sweeps over the forests of New York and eastern Canada (as well as Maine, if Stephen King is to be believed). Various swamp creatures stomp around in the Everglades. New Jersey has its Devil; New Mexico has its ghost miners. Both North American coasts, and at least ten other countries around the world, claim Bigfoot as a local.
What one finds in New England, though, and particularly Rhode Island, are curiously low levels of monsters and ghouls from beyond the realm of man. For the most part, the emphasis is on the unquiet ghosts of real people, with documented dates of birth and death. In one episode of "Ghost Hunters," when the TAPS team spends a night in Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, Grant Wilson assures a spooked case manager, "There's no inhuman spirits in here, you know what I mean? So there's no real threat to us." It's hard to know exactly where Wilson is getting this information, but the twin assumptions at work-that the investigators are unlikely to encounter anything other than the ghosts of dead people, and that the living have nothing to fear from the formerly alive-are both oddly typical of the state's parapsychology devotees. (Wilson's apparent conviction that harm can only come from inhuman spirits is especially puzzling when one thinks of events like the Great Swamp Massacre, where European colonists killed some three hundred innocent and mostly unarmed Narragansett natives in the marshes of what is now South Kingston; if those spirits are still hanging around, one feels, their affections for the present-day citizens of Rhode Island might be mixed at best.)
People like Hawes, Wilson and Laird profess to be seeking explanations for the unknown, but their approach often frames the unexplained in terms of the familiar; they are looking for things they already believe they understand. The ghosts that Wilson and Hawes hunt have little to do with Lovecraft's malevolent space-breakers. Often they are conceived as something closer to Lynda Hansen, the wispy matriarch of NBC's Providence, who died in the show's pilot and frequently appeared to her daughter in subsequent episodes to give well-meaning advice. Somewhere not far from the Holy Spirit of Roman Catholicism is this idea that ghosts take an interest in our affairs and still have things to teach us. The past is very close to the present in Rhode Island, but it may be a case of the living being unable to let the dead rest.
Benefit Street is sometimes called the Mile of History, though a more accurate name might be the Mile of Reconstruction. While the avenue is renowned for its pre-Revolutionary architecture, every building on the street today is a result of the efforts of a restoration-minded developer. The dubious authenticity of Benefit's quaint colonial charm hasn't stopped local parties from attributing to the area a rash of inexplicable sightings; it is thought, by those who take an interest, to be the single most haunted street in Rhode Island.
In the spirit of scientific inquiry, I recently made my way out to Benefit Street in the small hours of the morning. Andrew Laird would probably have criticized my methods; I wasn't armed with any sort of heat-sensitive equipment, nor did I have any way of detecting electromagnetic fluctuations. In lieu of a camera, I had a cell phone with which the most I had ever managed to do, in the year I'd owned it, was take pictures of the inside of my pocket. Still, I felt pretty good about my qualifications as an observer: I had a clear and open mind, and I was putting myself in what was, by all accounts, the right place at the right time. Surely, I reasoned, the people whose reports had originally made Benefit Street famous had been no more technically prepared than I was.
It was mid-February when I went out, but the day had been warm, and the night was full of quiet sounds with no immediately visible source: water dripping into bushes, ice sliding down roofs. I wandered south, keeping my pace deliberate. Benefit was lit by twin regiments of lampposts. The houses stood silent behind wrought-iron fences and low stone walls. In the dark, it was easier to believe that the street had never changed, that the clapboard houses and hunched stone servants' quarters hadn't been swallowed by urban decay in the 1920s and restored some fifty years later when the city determined to reinvent itself.
I lifted the latch on a gate and crept into a small plot where a tombstone stood, marking the resting place of Pardon Tillinghast, who built the first Baptist meeting-house in America. There are more than a few bodies interred on Benefit Street, in part because of the same political circumstances that made Tillinghast's project possible. When Roger Williams settled Providence, shortly after he was exiled from the Puritans' Massachusetts, the first thing he meant to cultivate in the new town was an atmosphere of impeccable religious tolerance. This turned cemeteries into a delicate matter: the convention of a common burial ground was seen as disrespectful, but segregating the dead by denomination seemed less than egalitarian. Many Providence families, unable to wait around for reconciliation between the politicians and the philosophers, took to burying their dead on the home plot, and that is where a good number remain today. I left the Tillinghast yard and continued my walk.
There is a house on Benefit about which Lovecraft wrote. The bodies of a Huguenot couple, residents of a building that once occupied the site, supposedly lie entombed underneath. The house itself was built in 1763 by Stephen Harris, a local merchant, whose family and personal fortunes went into an irreversible decline shortly after the house was finished. According to the lore, Harris lost several children to sickness and accident, and his wife delivered at least two more that were stillborn (there has reportedly never been a live birth at this particular address). Harris's wife is said to have lost her mind and been shut in an upstairs room, where she was occasionally heard shrieking in French, a language she did not speak.
It's unclear how much of this is apocryphal, and I wasn't able to prove or disprove anything that night; I set out to find the house, but had to turn around when it started raining. Hurrying home, I passed through a tumbling column of steam rising from somebody's basement window; there was no difference that I could see between the steam and some of the photos taken by the Rhode Island Paranormal Investigation Group on their expeditions. Benefit Street, I thought as I walked, is old and dark and full of noises of unclear provenance; its every building has already been brought back, in some sense, from the dead. It can be home to as many restless spirits as you want to find. I didn't see anything that evening, but it wasn't for lack of atmosphere. Sweeping over the slick asphalt, disappearing into the night, I probably looked a bit like a ghost myself.