Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Haunts or Hype?



Recently, friends Kenny Biddle and Lou Castillo interviewed a guest, Mellanie Cadwell, on their YouTube series, "Geeks and Ghosts".  They discussed her paranormal group’s investigation of a very famous haunted location. She not only found environmental factors explaining away many paranormal claims, but also found serious discrepancies between the stories the owners and TV shows give and the actual history of the site found in archived documents.  You can listen to the interview here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUF3pq3p-7Y

Unfortunately, this is nothing new or unique.  As I discussed before, many researchers have found that the tales spun on TV and to paying tourists at allegedly haunted locations are often embellished or fabricated.  Take one of America's "most famous haunted houses", The Myrtle's Plantation, for example. The best known story on their tours and featured on TV shows is of Chloe, a house slave who killed the owner's wife and children with a poisoned birthday cake.  But researchers found there was never any Chloe among records, and documents show the wife and children actually died of yellow fever during an epidemic.  But hey, it made for a great story that I believed at one time.

Anyway, the episode of "Geeks and Ghosts" prompted me to revisit an article I wrote for MyPara Magazine a few years ago:

Rolling Hills Asylum:  Haunts or Hype?

A few years ago I was part of a paranormal group that visited the Rolling Hills Asylum.  Since I had heard stories of paranormal activity there from other investigators and seen it profiled on TV, I was excited about going to the site.  However, because Rolling Hills had been featured in a lot of media (including two of the most popular ghost hunting TV shows) and charged a hefty fee for investigations, I had to wonder if there was more hype than haunts.  Even though it was a public ghost hunt (at $55 per person) I approached it as any other case and began the preliminary part of the investigation: learning what the claims of activity were, studying the history of the location and researching the surrounding area to look for possible environmental factors that could contribute to conditions, such as EMFs and infrasound.

I got an initial cursory history from the Rolling Hills website and the two paranormal TV shows.  Right away, I noticed discrepancies between the history on the website and what was presented by owners and teams on the TV shows.  What was consistent is that the first building on the property was open in 1827 to house the destitute.  At this point, I want to clarify that "Rolling Hills Asylum" is a commercial name given to the location when it was bought in 2002 as a paranormal attraction.  It had never been called that while in operation.  It was called the Genesee County Poor House and later, The Genesee County Home. The website presented a substantial amount of paranormal claims including shadow people, mysterious lights, a spectral screaming lady, and casts of ghosts, with names attributed to them.  I also noticed discrepancies of stories between the two TV shows.  One was filmed a few years later after the first, and, after the property had changed owners.

I found that the site is near several small airports, three of them within 10 -12 miles.  Our team leader found that there are salt mines nearby and wondered if they might have been a factor in unexplained EMFs and lights due to piezoelectricity.  There are large fields and woods surrounding the locations. In fact, much of the original property has been reclaimed by overgrowth.  This is important because of the claims about the "screaming lady".  The property is in prime fox habitat. Foxes can produce human-like screams, and from the TV shows, the condition of the building looked like it could be prone to animal access.  So I wondered if that was what people were actually hearing.

Our team arrived on a cold, windy evening.  It had rained earlier, so the air was damp.  As we approached the site, we passed a dead fox in the road. Besides our group, there were a few other teams. Before we all entered the building, we were advised by the owner that rats and even a woodchuck had been spotted inside.  So this gave more credibility to my fox theory.  The building was immense.  It had two wings with an addition.  Since it is a concrete structure with concrete walls and floors, long corridors and metal windowed doors, the acoustics were very live.  Many windows were not sealed and we felt gusts of air throughout the building.  There was water dripping in the basement onto the floor.  We were scheduled for an 8 hour public investigation.  The first two hours were spent on the tour, where we heard a mountain of paranormal claims.  In addition to what was on the website and TV shows, the owner gave us accounts of her many personal experiences, including conversing regularly with various spirits and seeing UFOs hovering above the property.  While on the tour, I noticed some of the claims didn't jibe with the history of the location or that specific claims had changed.  When I asked about any documentation behind some of the stories, I was told it came from "reliable psychics".  To me, this was the equivalent of being manufactured.  Throughout the tour, paranormal celebrities and TV shows were heavily promoted.

We were told about the "evidence" captured during investigations there.  Having perused the photo gallery on their website, I saw mostly what could be attributed to long exposures, dust, breath (it can be cold and damp in the building much of the time) and matrixing.  As usual, I dismissed anything from psychics, spirit boxes or other subjective techniques as there is no way to substantiate the validity.  But I was eager to see what our team might find, paranormal or not.

When the tour was over, I was surprised that unlike other public investigations I had attended, we were left to investigate with absolutely no coordination or scheduling.  Obviously, this created contamination for any audio and video being recorded since various groups of people were wandering aimlessly about an echoing dark building throughout the night.  This lead me to believe that it was far more likely that false positives were being captured there than any valid evidence. Not at all ideal for a "center of paranormal research", as it was once promoted.

The building, in my opinion, was staged for maximum creepiness.  There were cockroaches scattered about the floor.  They were fake.  When we questioned why they were there, we were told they had been left over from a haunted house event that was held. There were scarecrows and dolls strategically placed that could startle people in the dark.  A coat rack, with an old jacket hanging on it, was placed in the middle of a corridor.  Since it was in a blind spot until one came upon it around a corner, the only logical reason for its placement was to startle investigators.  There was a bloody handprint on a wall that, supposedly, a CSI team was scheduled to come investigate.  We had a former nurse and a corrections officer on our team and, in their opinion, it did not appear to be genuine blood at all. In one hall, there was an innocent-looking vase with fake flowers in it.  When viewed through an IR camera though, the vase was nearly invisible, so the flowers looked like a floating white blob.

Over the next 5.5 hours, we visited the most notorious spots on every floor on every wing.  Our group operated with the idea that in order to find causes that might be truly paranormal, we had to first identify and rule out all natural explanations for the reported experiences.  If we found another valid reason, we dismissed the claim or alleged evidence.  At Rolling Hills, we quickly found rational causes for many of the claims:

The screaming lady:  I already mentioned how the location is in fox territory and that animals of comparable size have been seen inside the building.  If you want to hear how similar a fox cry can sound to a human scream, there are several videos on YouTube of fox cries.  As an aside, when I first moved to the country and heard one in the middle of the night, I thought one of our neighbors were being murdered.  Luckily, my husband told me it was just a fox and to go back to sleep.  (All neighbors were later accounted for.)

Doors slamming on their own:  As I mentioned before, the building was not air-tight and we saw open and broken windows and felt gusts in the long corridors.  Hallways can act like wind tunnels and, given that the doors were fairly light, they could have been easily caught and shut by a draft.

Disembodied voices and cries:  Wind and acoustics can create ambient noise, which, at certain frequencies and patterns, the brain can misinterpret as speech.  In fact, in one room we were in, the wind came through a window creating an eerie, human-sounding howl.  This can also explain the "screaming lady" reported.  Water dripping in the basement can also sound like speech or even footsteps.  Even if good EVP protocols could have been followed there, these sounds could easily been misinterpreted.

Shadow people:  The hallway on the second floor was reported to be teeming with shadow people.  There were many reflective surfaces and light shining through exterior windows that could have created light and shadow play and cause people to misinterpret the shadows, especially in the dark.  There was also the possibility that people were affected by a common optical illusion, peripheral drift.  This happens with alternating black and white patterns, which can create an illusion of movement, and especially in the dark, the brain misinterprets as shadows.  Open doors into dark rooms down a hallway can create such a pattern.

Ectoplasm:  This term was invented by mediums during the spiritualism movement at the turn of the 20th century.  Researchers have found that the "ectoplasm" displayed in "ghost photography" at the time was actually gauze or cheesecloth secreted on the medium's person and then produced, often through disgusting means, during seances.  I believe what people were catching in pictures and video at Rolling Hills was more likely breath.  Much of the year, it is cold in that building.  Even in the warmer months, the air would be damp.  Summer in Upstate New York is humid and the surrounding fields and woods would enhance the humidity.  And, there is water leaking in the basement, creating more moisture in the air.

Mysterious lights:  Mystery lights were reported in a hallway that lead to a solarium, which was comprised of windows.  It faced two roads, and the way headlights bounced off the glass, could create light play in that hallway.  Again, there were a lot of reflective surfaces in the hallway.  We witnessed this phenomenon with headlights ourselves few times.  Another claim of a mysterious light was one seen at the level of a tree line.  But there is a hill with a road behind that tree line, so it was likely that headlights might have been misidentified as lights floating above the trees.  Remember, I also found a few airports nearby, which could explain those UFOs and mysterious lights above the tree.

Jack:  Jack (whose name was divined by a psychic) was said to block off the windows of double doors at the end of a hallway.  He blocked off one before moving to the other.  This may simply have been a case of tunnel vision.  If one stares at one of the windows (which have exterior light shining through) down the dark hallway, tunnel vision will naturally block out the other window, which we experienced.

Basement door closing on TV paranormal investigator:  In one paranormal TV show, a door apparently closed by an "unseen force" on an investigator, pushing into him.  He and his teammate claimed the door was heavy and barely moved when they pushed on it.  We found this to be false.  The door was indeed metal, but hollow and very light.  It actually swung closed on its own, which was why a brick had to be placed at the bottom to keep it from shutting completely and locking.

Door slam, weird energy:  Another team of TV investigators had a door slam on them (off camera) and then one of the members felt a "weird energy" in the room, giving him goose bumps on his arms.  Again, the doors were light, and gusts of air could easily close doors.  As far as his goose bumps, the window in that particular room was not sealed, and his goosebumps could have been a result of either cooler or more humid air blowing on him.

I would love to show you pictures to corroborate our opinions, but under the terms of the ghost hunt, all pictures taken were property of Rolling Hills Asylum.

To be fair, we formed our opinions based on our observations during our one visit.  Perhaps other groups have experienced actual activity and some of the claims are true.  But, I think much of what was being experienced was misinterpretation and misidentification fortified by TV shows.  Which leads me to the history of the location, and how, as presented on the TV shows and parts of the tour, was manipulated to capitalize on the dark associations with such places.  After we returned home, I contacted the Genesee County Historian, Susan Conklin, for some clarification on the history and to discuss the discrepancies.  She was very helpful and was generous with her time and knowledge.

Orphans, lunatics, and vagrants all lived under this roof:  Nope. The building that currently exists, the same featured in those TV shows, was built as a nursing home in 1938.  Its addition was built in the 1960's.  The other buildings that housed the orphans, mentally ill and vagrants were long gone.  Records show the various populations were housed separately in different wings and buildings.  Being there were never insane nor orphans housed in that building, the story of "Raymond" a ghost of a mentally ill patient who haunts the basement where he lured and molested little girls, is likely a fabrication.  It also places some doubt that the so-called Christmas Room is a haven for the ghosts of all the orphans who lived there.

Electroshock therapy was conducted on the insane:  Not at all likely.  The lunatics, as they were called, were all moved to Buffalo State Hospital or Willard Insane Asylum by 1887.  There was no electricity at the location at the time the insane were housed there.  (Kinda hard to conduct electroshock therapy without it.)  Furthermore, there is nothing in the country records, which include the inventory of equipment of the property, that would support the treatment was ever conducted there.

The building once had a TB ward:  False.  While there were patients with tuberculosis, they were transferred to Livingston.  In order for there to have been a TB ward, they would have had to move all the other patients to other facilities, under the state guidelines at the time.

Nurse Emmie:  Nurse Emmie was said to have abused her patients and was even connected to a satanic cult that supposedly broke into the building around 2004.  According to the county historian, there are no records to substantiate this story.  She said, there were no reports of abuse in the records, nor were there any claims of abused filed by either former patients or their families.  What makes the story even more implausible is that the nursing home closed in 1972.  I find it hard to believe they know who broke in, let alone whether they had any connection to a nurse who worked there over 30 years before.

So many people died, they were buried "all over the grounds":  Yes, over the 150 years of operation, a lot of people died there.  But, some had families who claimed their bodies and those who were not  were buried by the county.  There are records showing that a cemetery was on the property and was maintained while operating under the county.  The property had several large buildings while in operation, and the land was farmed for food, so it would have been difficult and impractical to bury bodies "wherever you can walk", as claimed.

Some might ask me, "So what if the history has been embellished?"  Well, if we call ourselves investigators and researchers, shouldn't we, by definition, strive to uncover and present facts? Secondly, historians painstakingly piece together history from a large amount of documents.  This can take years of tedious work.  They do this to preserve the history so future generations have an accurate account to study and learn from.  Finally, because of respect.  Real people lived, worked, suffered and died at that location.  They deserve to be remembered as they were, not to have people pick their names from a register and make up sensational ghost stories about them for a profit.

Rolling Hills Asylum may indeed be haunted, and I have no problem with people making an honest profit to preserve historic buildings.  But because of the manipulation of facts and manufacturing of stories, doubt was placed on the credibility of any "evidence" supposedly caught there.  For such locations to be taken seriously as places for valid paranormal research, they need to drop unsubstantiated stories, ditch the props, restore the historical integrity, and let the buildings – and the spirits, if they exist - speak for themselves.

















Tuesday, December 9, 2014

I'm Baa-ack...

After taking a prolonged break from Creepy Corners, I've had a few friends convince me to come back.  I was hesitant because frankly, it's disheartening when I, and others like me, share information which is easily accessible and verifiable, yet it hasn't made much of a dent in the so-called paranormal field.  New ghost hunting groups and TV shows continue to crop up and mislead people with bogus "evidence" and whats worse, the general public seems more willing to eat it up rather than to use critical thinking skills and accept rational explanations.  Moreover, if you offer rational explanations to supposed paranormal events, it is often met with scorn and sometimes outright hostility. (I've have friends who have been threatened with harassment charges and/or being sued just for questioning some self-proclaimed paranormal experts' claims!)

As I mentioned in my post Ghosts and Pop Culture, many misconceptions about ghosts and the paranormal are ingrained in the public's subconscious.  During my Halloween spooky movie binge, I watched many movies, some dating back to the 1930's, with the same familiar recurring formula: a violent or sudden death = an angry ghost seeking vengeance on the living.  A scientist with fancy gadgets talking about "vibrations" and "energy" comes in to help, usually accompanied by a "respected" (AKA "the real deal") medium.  They discover the spirit's problem is and solve it so it "moves on"and everyone's happy. This theme is so deeply embedded in our pop culture, that many people blindly accept it as fact and get upset when presented with facts that challenge or disprove these unfounded notions.  I've been questioned why do I care if people believe in such things.  Honestly, if people are keeping their beliefs to themselves, I don't.  But if people are presenting certain things as FACT, in a public forum, or presenting themselves as "experts" and "educating" others on such topics, then I feel a need to speak up against blatant misinformation.

Several months ago, I was in the hair salon when the discussion turned to how a body of a missing woman had finally been found after twenty years.  Her car, with her remains inside, was found in a deep part of a large river, one used for commercial shipping.  One woman remarked that she remembered a local psychic saying the missing woman would be found in water, and felt this was "confirmation" of the psychic's abilities.  I disagreed, explaining that the psychic never mentioned any specific body of water, let alone that particular river, which might have been useful before 20 years had passed.  Furthermore, if her body was found in the middle of the Mojave Desert, I'd might be impressed, but it was found in a region where there is a large river emptying out into one of the Great Lakes, surrounded by multiple lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, etc.  It's a wet region, so it is not at all unlikely that a missing car and body would be found in water.  My rational answer wasn't met with any counter arguments or facts, just angry rolls of the eyes and shakes of the head.  The subject was abruptly changed.

A while back, an ghost hunter acquaintance proclaimed that while he's a skeptic, he can't deny the "unexplainable" things that he's seen with his own eyes.  (Newsflash: then you're not really a skeptic, buddy.)  I provided links to articles about visual misperceptions caused by physiological or environmental factors.  He completely dismissed these out of hand, arguing that other people have had experiences at the same location.  I explained that if it was an environmental factor, such as infrasound, it could affect more than one person.  But he held fast to his belief that he experienced something paranormal.  Here's where I'd like to address a pet peeve of mine:  many accuse skeptics of being "closed minded", often by people who don't really understand what the term skeptic means.  In the conversation above, this person, even when presented with objective information, would not accept the possibility that his experience could have been caused by something non-paranormal.  So who's the closed-minded one again?  Also, any true skeptic would know that jumping to the conclusion that something "unexplainable" must be paranormal is not scientific nor rational.  Remember, this is a ghost hunter who goes into people's homes to "help".

Before Halloween, I was visiting a nostalgic Facebook page for my hometown.  Someone posted pictures of the interior of an abandoned theater.  Having been in disrepair for some time, there is a lot of dust around, and therefore, "orbs" were in the picture. Inevitably, someone I will describe as a paranormal enthusiast mentioned the orbs and so another woman asked what they are.  The enthusiast answered that they are spirits of dead people and other psychic phenomena.  Yeppers.  So being the spoil sport that I am, I posted several links to articles with scientific explanations that orbs are really airborne particles.  My response got a few likes.  The enthusiast answered back how there are several stories of what orbs are and she chooses to believe that there are things around us of a spiritual nature, blah blah blah, but offered no objective information to challenge the fact that they are just airborne particles.  (Just an aside: I never once asserted there are no such things as ghosts, just that orbs have a natural explanation.)  No surprisingly, her response got more likes than mine, including a "Cool, thank you!" from the woman who asked her what orbs are.  The scariest part of this exchange?  The woman accepting the cool ghostie answer - which has repeatedly been debunked by photography experts and camera manufactures for years now - was running for school board! Yikes!

*SPOILER ALERT:  There are Season 5 "Walking Dead" spoilers contained in this paragraph.* Recently, there was an episode on "The Walking Dead" where Eugene, a scientist who was being protected by a former soldier for his knowledge that could save the world, admitted he lied.  He was not a scientist, nor did he have the answer to cure the infected.  Members of the group of survivors seemed shocked because he "sounded smart" and "knew things."   Even without reading the comics, I had him pegged as a fake right away.  Eugene reminded me of many ghost hunters I've met over the years.  They sound smart, using science-y terminology, using science-y gadgets when in actuality, they have no formal scientific training or education.  They know enough to "pass" as knowledgeable to those who have little to no understanding of topics like electromagnetic fields, acoustics, photography, etc.  And before anyone else accuses me of  "just out to bash ghost hunters",  let me be clear:  I once blindly believed so-called paranormal "experts" because I hadn't taken the time to learn more about these subjects myself, and I wanted to believe them.  Unfortunately, it is much more appealing for people to believe false "evidence" of ghosts rather than natural explanations. So sadly, as we've seen from the few of my encounters above, too many people will choose to believe the Eugenes of the paranormal community.  It continues to be an uphill battle for those of us trying to promote science and critical thinking in paranormal research.