Where Can I Find a Ghost Like That?

The end of October is finally upon us and for writers that means only one thing: bowls full of miniature candy bars will be widely available for snacking.

Or maybe two things. Because tomorrow is the first of November and the start of National Novel Writing Month. Once again it’s that time of year when people dedicated to the craft of novel writing, become even more dedicated and join upwards of 400,000 of their closest friends in setting the goal of writing 50,000 words in a single short month that, at least for US participants, includes a major holiday.typewriter-584696__340

I’ve participated a few times in NaNoWriMo and I’m proud to say that each time I have been among the usually less than 20% who completed the challenge. I’d love to do it this year, too. I even have a couple of ideas for books floating around in my brain and tonight I will be attending a NaNoWriMo kickoff party for local writers who will get started on their future masterpieces at the stroke of midnight.

Sadly, I’ve had to accept that this year I will be attending in a strictly cheerleading capacity. I’m still working through one project and preparing for the rapidly approaching launch of a new novel. And, well, it’s a short month with a major holiday in it. Unless I can find myself a ghostwriter, I think I’m out of luck.

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Pearl Curran took the term “ghostwriter” to the next level. by Walter Franklin Prince [Public domain]
But I suppose you never know. It happened for another St. Louis woman in the summer of 1913. Mrs. Pearl Curran had been experimenting with her Ouija board for nearly a year when she was first contacted by Patience Worth. The English-born ghost claimed to have lived from 1649-1694, traveled to America as a Puritan, and eventually died at the hands of hostile Indians. She also had a way with words and a story to tell.

Actually, several stories, quite a few letters, and a whole lot of poems. With the help of her living companion, Patience Worth wrote at least six novels before Pearl Curran died in 1937, at which time, presumably, the two continued to hang out.

In 1918 alone, the strange duo produced eighty-eight poems that were published in various magazines. Some of this large body of work even garnered praise from literary critics, one of whom wrote that Worth had “a sense of humor that is rare in ghosts.”

As a novelist whose work has yet to attract a great deal of critical attention, I admit this bothers me a little bit. Mrs. Curran definitely encountered her fair share of skeptics and I am among them. Believers argued that Curran lacked the formal education to produce the works on her own, but there’s some evidence that she might have had more creative abilities than her background would suggest.ouija-board-4553829__340

Frankly, I don’t think it really matters much. Great work came from the collaboration, whether Patience Worth was a figment of a highly developed imagination or she was a literal ghostwriter.

Either way, I’ll probably miss out on penning a novel this November. I suspect I’m unlikely to come across a ghost willing to share its literary genius. I don’t even own a Ouija board. But I am looking forward to the candy.

Happy Halloween! Happy NaNoWriMo!

The Great Pumpkin and the Good Candy

This time of year I always think I should blog about Halloween—its history, which is a little muddled depending on what source you look at, and its bizarre traditions. But every year I think I end up writing about how I don’t care much for this particular holiday. I do enjoy seeing all my cutest little neighbors dressed up like princesses and super heroes (with extra padding because it’s super cold and almost always raining) and smiling at me because I just gave them the good candy. Yes, we are that house. We consider it a responsibility.

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There’s no candy corn or weird black and orange taffy at this house. Public Domain, via Pixabay.

But I don’t like haunted houses, or gruesome decorations, or scary movies. I mean, sure, a good psychological thriller might be in my wheelhouse, but very rarely have demon nuns, possessed dolls, or chainsaw-wielding maniacs amounted to a good cinematic experience in my book. And you might disagree with me, but you’re wrong if you do, that no one in the history of the universe has ever actually enjoyed a jump scare.

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I don’t typically decorate much for Halloween, but this I could get behind. It would go well with all the creepy goblins and grave stones in my neighbors’ yards. Public Domain, via Pixabay

I guess what I’m saying is that media entertainment is not my friend at this time of year. I’ll catch it on the other side, when the cheery holiday movies start up and the scariest thing I might see while flipping through channels is the ghost of Christmas-yet-to-come.

I do, however, make one exception to my television and movie hiatus, because once a year, ABC airs the classic It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Actually, ABC has only had the rights to the show since 2000. Before that the holiday classic had been a CBS exclusive since it debuted in on October 27, 1966.

I wasn’t watching then, but I’ve seen it most years as far back as I can remember. And I did watch it this week when it was on. With my youngest son. While eating a caramel apple. Because some Halloween traditions just make sense.

For example, the Great Pumpkin, the belief in which has young Linus van Pelt, with his signature blue blanket, waiting on Halloween night in the most sincere pumpkin patch he can find just to catch a glimpse. The Great Pumpkin, according to Linus, travels around on Halloween night bringing gifts to good boys and girls.

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Looks like a pretty great pumpkin to me. Public Domain, via Pixabay

In all the years I’ve been watching the special, the Great Pumpkin has never appeared. Instead, Linus falls asleep shivering in the pumpkin patch and it’s up to his big sister Lucy to bring him home and tuck him into bed with dreams of trying again next year.

It’s not so silly, is it? According to Charles Schulz, a number of scholars thought it wasn’t, and even approached him to ask about the origin of the Great Pumpkin mythology. Schulz joked that he told them they’d be better off asking Linus.

The myth, of course, began with the cartoonist himself. Not entirely comfortable with promoting a childhood belief in Santa Claus, he introduced Linus’s widely mocked belief in the Great Pumpkin in 1959 in the Peanuts comic strip as a kind of humorous social commentary. And there may have been a light jab at organized religion in there as well, as Linus explains that Charlie Brown’s bizarre belief in Santa Claus is an expression of “denominational differences.” It might even include a plea for civil discourse as Linus says, “There are three things I’ve learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.”

I’m assuming most of you don’t wait up all Halloween night in the sincerest pumpkin patch you can find just to catch a glimpse of the Great Pumpkin yourself, but I do hope you’ve seen the special. I might even recommend that you watch it every year, while eating a caramel apple. It’s a sweet little cartoon, beloved by generations of children, many of whom for years sent boxes and boxes of Halloween candy to Charles Schulz to give to Charlie Brown who had only received rocks in his trick-or-treating bag. He should have come to our house. We’d have given him the good candy.

The Second Best (Creeptastic) Hidden Ice Skating Rink

Included in the January 15, 1895 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is an article mentioning the increase in numbers ice skaters frequenting the frozen ponds of St. Louis’s Bellefontaine Cemetery. At night.

This time of year, thanks to television commercials and overly enthusiastic neighbors who insist on placing plastic headstones in their lawns to add a little holiday ambiance, we all become a little haunted by the shadow of death. Or at least I do.

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The cemetery isn’t nearly as scary as my neighbor’s yard decked out for Halloween. I wouldn’t ice skate there, either.

I don’t much fear death, and I might even associate it with ice skating, but I’m still not sure I’d be willing to engage in such a lighthearted activity in a cemetery. And definitely not at night.

Of course, the skaters of 1895 showed up after dark because at the time ice skating was specifically not allowed in the cemetery. By 1909, Bellefontaine had placed additional restrictions on dogs, fishing, and bicycles. Because apparently a lot of people wanted to hang out there.

I suppose it makes a little bit of sense. The cemetery opened in May of 1850, only about twenty years after the first “rural cemetery” in the nation was established outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Prior to the development of cemeteries outside of major cities, Americans buried their loved ones primarily in church graveyards that had become dangerously overcrowded and unsanitary as city populations boomed.

Like most of these large rural cemeteries, Bellefontaine was designed as a park, with great attention to beautiful architecture, winding paths, and gorgeous landscaping. It was designed to be a place where mourners could reflect on the lives and deaths of loved ones in peace and quiet. It was also a place one could have a nice picturesque afternoon picnic.

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The real reason I don’t ice skate in the cemetery at night is because when I skate it mostly looks a little something like this. But also it would be pretty creepy. photo credit: vwcampin Ice Skating via photopin (license)

Because at the time there weren’t public parks like we have now, nor were there botanical gardens or art museums available to just any person who wanted to enjoy them. Cemeteries like Bellefontaine filled that need. And sometimes the ponds froze over and people went ice skating.

As city populations continued to grow and park systems grew with them, the role of the large rural cemetery became less public skating rink and more city of the dead. For a time, then, these really beautiful and well tended pieces of land gained a tinge of darkness and dread. They were the places where grieving people gathered for graveside services and solemn remembrances, which is probably why I can’t imagine ice skating in one.

And they’re still that. But recently, while letterboxing with friends, I found myself visiting Bellefontaine for the first time, and you know, it’s really a beautiful place that I could see hanging out in for a while. It was even voted the city’s 2018 second-best hidden gem by the readers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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The fancy mausoleum of St. Louis Beer Baron Adolphus Busch.

Today, no longer so much outside the city as well within it,  Bellefontaine is a sprawling 314 acres with fourteen miles of curved roads and more than 87,000 internments, many of them people who once helped shape not only St. Louis, but much of nineteenth century America. Tours are offered regularly, and even include an annual beer barons tour (because St. Louis has had a few of those) complete with plenty local beer samples.

If you’re not too frightened by the tales of ghost sightings and the general creepiness of 87,000 dead people in one place, the ornate mausoleums and memorial statuary are worth a gander, and the stories are fascinating. Today you can feel free to bring your bicycle and your dog, but if you want to fish or ice skate, St Louis might have better options.

Confectionary Kernels and America’s Least Most Awful Choice

On September 9, 1950 the town of Midland Park, New Jersey experienced a holiday tragedy the likes of which had been previously unknown. The effects would be felt by retailers across the nation and by perhaps as many as tens of disappointed little Halloween goblins and ghouls.

Because right in the middle of the process of making a batch of candy corn, a beeswax-lined kettle caught fire and burned the Goelitz Confectionary Company New Jersey factory to the ground. The good news is that all of the employees managed to escape the blaze unharmed. And the other good news is that 2000 pounds of candy corn was consumed by the blaze, which meant no one else had to eat it.

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I would rather set this on fire than eat it. photo credit: Great Beyond Day 293/365 – Candy Corn via photopin (license)

Candy corn has been around since at least the late 19th century when it was allegedly invented by George Renninger of the Wunderle Candy Company. The weird pretend vegetable candy had its wider debut in 1880, when Goelitz Confectionary first mass produced packages of it and sent it out into the world marketed as “Chicken Feed.”

Obviously there can be no accounting for the questionable culinary tastes of 19th century America. But the really strange part is there still seems to be a small, enthusiastic remnant of the population that loves the stuff. These are the folks who at parties, gobble handfuls of candy corn mixed with peanuts and insist it’s just like eating a PayDay candy bar (which in this blogger’s humble opinion, is also gross) or who design specialty candy corn cocktails, because nothing says, “Mix me with vodka!” like corn syrup and fondant.

These are the same people who are responsible for candy companies feeling the need to produce up to 15 billion kernels of candy corn every year, including buckets of them in red, white and green for Christmas (a traditional corn holiday) or red, white, and pink for Valentine’s Day (so you can tell the one you love, “Here, I got you this corn.”).

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I don’t even know what to think of this.

I know I typically try to avoid a whole lot of controversy on this blog, but I do realize at this point, I will have to concede that a few of you reading may find yourself in the candy corn camp. Even my dad, who is one of the wisest people I know, is generally right about most things, and is a loyal reader of this blog, also occasionally enjoys candy corn.

But highly scientific market research into American candy preferences suggests that candy corn is by far the most divisive candy on the market. People who don’t like it, really don’t like it and probably have their fists raised as they nod along with this post. And I suppose the tens of people who love it, really do love it. They can’t wait for retail Halloween to roll around every July so they can stock up, make themselves a candy corn martini, and munch some PayDay mix.

They’re the people who in 1950, were dismayed at the September Goelitz fire because even though the handful of other companies that produced the confectionary kernels tried their best, there was a candy corn shortfall that year.

Goelitz decided not to rebuild its New Jersey factory, though they still produce a good share of the candy corn on the market. Today, the company is known as Jelly Belly, the same ones responsible for the vomit flavored Bertie Botts Every Flavor Bean, easily the third worst candy in the world.

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Oh no! This is an option I hadn’t considered. This may change things. photo credit: giveawayboy It’s that time again… via photopin (license)

So, you may ask, what’s the second most awful candy in the world? Well, actually I admit there may some room for debate on that front. As much as I dislike candy corn, Halloween offers us another terrible alternative in the form of that weird brown taffy that comes in the orange and back wrappers. Honestly, it’s kind of a toss-up and if you try to give out either one to Trick-or-Treaters, you might deserve the egging your house is sure to receive.

But, since the American* public is facing another looming similar situation in which it will have to attempt to choose the least terrible of the worst alternatives imaginable, I figured we all could use a little practice. To that end, I’d like to conduct a brief and highly scientific poll. So, what do you think? Is candy corn the worst candy on the market? And if not, why, do you think, are you so clearly wrong?

 

*I realize that candy corn is more or less an American problem, but Non-Americans are more than welcome (and even encouraged) to participate in this important debate, too. I suspect, no matter the outcome, our houses are all getting egged.

Dave Glover Spews Pea Soup?

In 1949, Jesuit Priest Walter Halloran was a student of history at St. Louis University who also served as a driver for William Bowdern, then pastor of St. Francis Xavier College Church. On the night of March 9, Bowdern asked Halloran to drive him to a charming two-story brick house in the northwestern suburb of Bel-Nor.

Halloran assumed he would wait in the car while the priest conducted his business at the home, but when they reached their destination, Bowdern surprised him, saying, “I’ll be doing an exorcism. I want you to hold the boy down in case it’s needed.”

As the story goes, in January of that year, a thirteen-year-old boy from near Washington DC (perhaps the most frightening place on earth), began exhibiting some very strange behavior after attempting to contact his recently deceased aunt with the aid of a Ouija board.

St. Louis's own Exorcism House, the last remaining location of the 1949 exorcism that inspired the novel and movie. Picture via Destination America, which will air
St. Louis’s own Exorcist House, the last remaining location of the 1949 exorcism that inspired the novel and movie. Picture via Destination America, which will air “Exorcism: Live!” at 9 pm EDT, on October 30. 2015.

Fearing he might be possessed, the family contacted their Lutheran minister, who directed them to Father Albert Hughes, a local Catholic priest. It seems Hughes knew only slightly more about exorcism than did his Lutheran counterpart and managed to get himself injured by the boy, who still appeared very much possessed.

After that, the family decided a change of scenery may be best (because nobody wants to exorcize a demon in their own house) and they headed to St. Louis where the boy’s mother had grown up and where there are evidently priests who know more about exorcisms than do their DC counterparts.

The demon seems to have agreed because the word “LOUIS” allegedly formed on the boy’s chest. The family (in a demonstration of the same kind of good judgment that led them to allow their son to attempt to contact the dead in the first place) took that as a sign.

And that’s when Bowdern and Halloran entered the scene, along with assistant and priest Raymond Bishop who kept a detailed diary of the proceedings. After more than a month of prayer and ritual, and moves both to the rectory of St Francis Xavier Church on the campus of St. Louis University and to the psychiatric ward of the Alexian Brothers Hospital (neither of which still stand), the exorcism was finally successful on April 18, 1949.

The boy and his family returned to their Maryland home where, his true identity safely obscured, he is said to have gone on to enjoy a normal, productive, and likely Ouija board-free life. But his ordeal became the basis of William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel, The Exorcist, and the 1973 film adaptation, most well known for the spectacular spewing of pea soup.

Terrifying. photo credit: Fresh Pea and Ham Soup via photopin (license)
Terrifying. photo credit: Fresh Pea and Ham Soup via photopin (license)

But the neat little brick house in Bel-Nor, Missouri is still here. The house is occupied, though the homeowners don’t seem to want to comment about the story. Neighbors and some previous owners have associated strange, unsettling feelings with the northwest upstairs bedroom where the exorcism is said to have partly taken place. Still, others are more skeptical.

All the priests who participated in the exorcism, with the exception of Halloran remained quiet on the subject in the interest of protecting the privacy of the possessed boy. Halloran never gave details either, but he did admit that he wasn’t quite sure what he had witnessed and that the entire episode may have been attributable to mental illness rather than true demon possession.

Others remain convinced that the house itself possesses an unusually large amount of spooky presence. Tomorrow night (October 30, 2015), on Destination America, television ghost hunters the Tennessee Wraith Chasers will join psychic and medium Chip Coffey, and Archbishop James Long (of the United States Old Catholic Church) in an attempt on live television to rid the house of lingering evil. With them will be local St. Louis radio talk show host Dave Glover.

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This is what I’m hoping my Halloween will look like. photo credit: Walking via photopin (license)

And probably not tuning in will be me.

Because there are some things, whether real or not, I think probably ought not be messed with. Instead, I plan to enjoy my weekend of handing out candy to Disney Princesses and tiny Darth Vaders. Then on Monday, I’ll flip on my radio to find out if Dave Glover is spectacularly spewing pea soup.