Thursday, January 10, 2013

the ghost of the canadian museum of nature

the construction of the canadian museum of nature.

 when I was a kid growing up in ottawa, my parents would take my sisters and I to the canadian museum of nature, which sits in the middle of downtown ottawa. the museum was built between 1905-1912 and it was originally called the victoria memorial museum building. one halloween, probably in the early or mid-1990s, we went to a halloween exhibit they were having. it was there that I first heard the story of the ghost of the fourth floor's west wing - to this day one of the most captivating ottawa ghost stories I have encountered.
architect david ewart.
     there were two theories that I heard about who the ghost that reportedly haunted the fourth floor had been in life. the first was that it was an aboriginal spirit whose energy was still attached to an artifact that was on exhibit somewhere in the building, perhaps angered by the fact that the artifact had been taken from its people, and perhaps that is why it was restless. the second theory I heard was that the ghost was that of the architect of the building, who had supposedly committed suicide by leaping to his death from the roof of the building after it saw its completion in 1912. I have since done some research and discovered that the building's architect, a man by the name of david ewart, did not in fact die the same year that the building was completed, but actually nine years after that, and not only this, but he was 80 years old when he died. this leads me to believe that perhaps the story of his suicide was nothing more than a legend. that being said, regardless of who the ghost is (assuming it exists), it is said to be quite active. it has been reported by the night staff to exhibit poltergeist-like behaviour, such as pulling cords out of wall sockets and such. also, it has been said that the west wing of the fourth floor is in fact so haunted that that area of the museum is shut off from visitors, unable to be used as part of an exhibit. whether the ghost is the spirit of an aboriginal chief or an architect, or whether it is a true haunting or simply a tantalizing legend, the story of the ghost of the canadian museum of nature was one of my earliest brushes with the paranormal, and it inspired in me a life-long curiosity about the possibility of the existence of ghosts.

(photo credits: the ottawa citizen, department of public works/ the library and archives of canada)

Saturday, December 8, 2012

the haunting of hill house

I first encountered the haunting of hill house in its first cinematic incarnation, the 1963 classic by robert wise starring julie harris, claire bloom, richard johnson, and russ tamblyn. it remains to this day the scariest film I have ever seen, and, seeing as I saw it as a child, it was pivotal in sparking in me an early interest in the paranormal. the film was based on a book by one of my very favourite authors, shirley jackson, who is most famous perhaps for her short story entitled "the lottery."
      I think the brilliance of the haunting of hill house is that it isn't primarily a ghost story. the most frightening thing in this story is not the house itself, but to me it was always the way it shows the fragility of the human psyche, and I feel as though both the book and the robert wise adaptation capture this well. the heroine of the story, eleanor vance (eleanor lance in the film) has just suffered the loss of her mother, who had been ill for years previous, and whom she had attended to up until her death. she still bares some deep-seated guilt regarding the circumstances of her mother's death, and the events that transpire at the haunted hill house only serve to push her already fragile mental state further over the brink. it is clear that she isn't simply insane, but rather a troubled woman who feels out of place even in her own family. the fact that she isn't insane, and that we can't simply chalk her delusions up to the fact that there's just something "wrong" with her, and we see her mind slowly unravel more and more until it reaches breaking point forces us to ask the question - what would it take for us to find ourselves in a similar state? given the right circumstances, would we also be subject to the same delusions as she is?
     I will only briefly address the 1999 version by jan de bont starring catherine zeta-jones, owen wilson, liam neeson, and lili taylor, and only to say that it fails primarily because it neglects this more crucial part of the story. de bont's version is approached simply as a ghost story - and it is a poorly executed one at that. while wise's production focuses on developing the characters and the story, incorporating subtle and psychologically unnerving chills, de bont's version is a cgi train-wreck that abandons all subtlety and goes for effects-driven "scares." what really makes it a failure of an adaptation, however, is that it strays so far from the novel, particularly in terms of the psychology of the characters, that it is almost unrecognizable from the original story. as a result it is no longer scary, but simply laughable.
     in terms of both the book and the 1963 film's portrayal of the paranormal, it is fairly clear that the house is genuinely haunted. although it is possible that some of what we encounter along the way could also be a result of eleanor's state of mind, the other characters also experience the haunting, and so it is clear that at least some, if not most of the events that take place in the house are really transpiring. what I always loved about the robert wise production is that the filmmakers incorporate scenes in which the characters discuss the paranormal, and do so in a thoughtful way. richard johnson takes on the role of doctor montague (in the robert wise film he becomes doctor markway), and he portrays him as learned man of science, a professor of anthropology who believes in the existence of the paranormal, which lends credibility to the events that happen. at one point he tells eleanor that she shouldn't be afraid of the supernatural "when people believed the earth was flat, the idea of a round world scared them silly. then they found out how the round world works. it's the same with the world of the supernatural. until we know how it works, we'll continue to carry around this unnecessary burden of fear." however, this is early on, and it becomes clear that even doctor montague has underestimated the power of the supernatural forces within the house.
     overall, both the novel and the 1963 film are classic works of horror, in part for the very real chills they give due to the supernatural occurrences that the characters experience, and also in part for the way in which they both capture something frightening about the human condition itself. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

welcome to pheneas speaks

welcome to pheneas speaks: a blog for the paranormal & the bizarre. this blog is named after a work entitled pheneas speaks: direct spirit communications in the family circle by the creator of sherlock holmes, sir arthur conan doyle. this work was named for the spirit conan doyle believed was his guide in the afterlife, a spirit by the name of pheneas. sir arthur conan doyle became an ardent spiritualist around 1915, and wrote several works on the topic of spiritualism, many of which are available online for free as they are in the public domain. I have adopted the name for this blog because for me sir arthur conan doyle as an individual embodies so much of what the study of the paranormal and the supernatural involves - scientific rationalism, a healthy skepticism of popularly accepted answers to the questions concerning life's greatest mysteries, and a willingness to accept the unusual and the unpopular notions. the spiritualist movement of conan doyle's day is not unlike the study of the paranormal today in that both have been relegated to the fringes of society. on this blog I will post about everything from urban legends and horror stories to spirit photography and spiritualist works. this blog is for those who have a curiosity or an interest regarding the paranormal and the bizarre - for skeptics and believers alike. I hope you will enjoy your stay.