For All Hallows Eve, Mourning Portraits

With a few ghost stories and what people look like when they’re dead.

Years ago, I saw this movie, I think it was The Others, and I think it was with Nicole Kidman. I remember a female protagonist as a mother living in a haunted house. I don’t remember it very well. Maybe I have the wrong movie in mind. But I do remember that it was shot in black and white and that the stars in the movie turned out to be the ghosts in the house.

One plot element of that movie was the book of the dead. The pictures in the book were of people who had died but were propped up to make them appear to be alive again. The pictures were known as mourning portraits. A quick search of mourning portraits on Google will keep you busy for awhile. The pictures are unsettlign to say the least, but you can find a sample here.

I remember in the movie, the shadows, the contrast, and relief of the characters in the light. I remember the loneliness and isolation portrayed in the movie. I remember that sense of surprise to find that the woman who thought she was living in a haunted house, turned out to be a ghost haunting the house. I found the scene in the movie where the woman is flipping through a book of the dead, thinking that she’s still alive, but it’s not what I remember, for the scene is shot in color, the movie I remember was in black and white.

As the month turned to October this year, I was reminded of that movie that I saw so long ago. I was reminded of the scenes in the movie so bereft of light, that I could only see so much and the rest was darkness. I was reminded of the pictures of dead people and how they were propped up. I didn’t know what they were then until I started to search for them and found out that they were mourning portraits.

I’m not really superstitious and I don’t believe in ghosts or haunted houses. But I know just enough about science to know that many things are unexplained. For a short time, before I got married, I went to Meetups with the California Paranormal Society. This was a small group of people who went to cemeteries and mausoleums and places where people had died and they investigated them.

With the California Paranormal Society, I went to the Hollywood Forever Cemetary. I saw the crypts of Darla and Alfalfa from The Little Rascals, next to each other. I saw the crypt of Rudolph Valentino. I saw the burial place of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. with fresh flowers at the foot of a monument that would otherwise be a tombstone. I saw where Joey Ramone was buried, under a statue in his likeness with a guitar in hand. I saw the resting place of many of the stars of the past. It was kind of creepy towards the end of the tour, in the lower floors of a mausoleum, with increasing clouds at sunset. I remember needing to hit the restroom. I think I was done after that.

The other day I ran a search for mourning portraits while eating oatmeal. Not a good idea. So I finished eating, waited, and returned later. When I looked upon the mourning portraits to see the glassy eyes, the forced postures, the clasped hands, and the somewhat awkward poses of the living next to the dead, I was creeped out. There is one picture I saw with two women, I could not tell which one was dead and which one was alive until I read the caption. There were several that I saw with living and dead together, and I guess the poor picture quality of the Victorian era makes it hard to tell. That was a feature, not a bug.

Later that day, after looking at those eyes, I learned that pupils are often painted onto the eyeballs. I considered the fact that just because the eyes are open, doesn't mean they are seeing anything. Those people were unable to see anymore, not through those vacuous glassy eyes.

I don’t really believe in ghosts. But I know of someone who did, a couple that was friends of mine back in the days when I was still a bachelor and bum. Anyway, they had checked into a hotel because they had heard that it was haunted. They wanted to see if it really was haunted.

When they got to their room, they noticed a waste basket sitting in the middle of the room. The woman took the wastebasket and put it to the side, next to a desk where it belonged. They took a shower. They went downstairs and had dinner. They slept well after a day of traveling. When they awoke, the wastebasket was back in the center of the room again. They checked out that day with enough proof for themselves that the hotel was haunted.

I have my own little ghost story, too. Back in the days when I was still a bachelor, I was doing stand up comedy about once a week at the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. Part of my duty as a comedian for that show was to setup the stage, the mike and the lighting.

I had heard the ship was haunted. I had a chance to talk to one of the staff working there. I heard that one room had so much trouble that they made it the accounting office between two staterooms.

The theater where I performed was next to an empty swimming pool on the lowest deck. There was a thermostat that was broken and it hissed a cold stream of air from broken pneumatic piping inside. It was perpetually broken as the staff on board had tried to fix it many times and gave up. So the theater was cold, too.

There I was, setting up the lights in the darkness of the theater. I got those lamps plugged in and turned on. Then I started to set up the mic once I could see. As I was setting up the mike, I looked out into the theater to see empty chairs. I went back to unrolling the cord for the microphone. Just as I was finished unrolling the cord, I looked at a seat and it suddenly flipped up, as if someone had been sitting in it and got up. But nobody was there. Time to turn on the music!

When Halloween comes around, I reflect on these things. The vacant faces in the mourning portraits. The wastebasket with a mind of its own. That chair in the Queen Mary. Although I am a man of science, I also know there is so much that we cannot explain. And I leave it at that.

Write on.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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