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Ghostly encounters in the sun: why we spook ourselves in the summer

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“It could be the children from upstairs.”

In the summer, we tell ghost stories.

Whether it be the proliferation of campfires, the long days that provide a buffer against the terrors of the night, or the strange sleepy-wakefulness that marks summer afternoons, there is something about the warmer months of the year that encourages a curiosity in the supernatural.

And so it was, on a soporific Sunday afternoon at the old Grange Hall in Three Mile Bay, that a small group of residents and visitors gathered to share their ghostly encounters under the guidance of Lyme town historian Julie E. Gosier.

A woman named Mary shared a story.

Shortly after her mother died, Mary went with her brother to make burial arrangements at a funeral home in Chaumont. While discussing details with the undertaker, she noticed a small child peering around the corner of the parlor and playing peekaboo with her.

She didn’t think anything of it at first, figuring that it was the daughter of the man who ran the funeral home.

But when she commented on it to the undertaker, he simply said, “No.”

“It could be the children from upstairs,” he said.

Mary did not think too much about it at the time, her mind consumed with the more mundane details of complying with her mother’s final wishes, but, upon further reflection, she realized how strange the entire episode had been.

What did she really see? Why would children be living above a funeral home? Why was the undertaker’s reaction so nonchalant?

Now, every time she drives by the funeral home, she looks at the heavy curtains in the window and wonders, “Who are the children from upstairs?”

There is a technique to telling a ghost story, and whether the art informs the content or the content the art, most people adopt a standard approach when discussing unnatural occurrences.

They drop their voice a few octaves and speak just above a whisper. Eerie pauses are inserted, seemingly at random, as they try to remember the details of the story.

As the listeners lean in close, they are sometimes, in the best of tellings, gently lulled into a half sleep — a realm where logic slips away and dreams and reality exist together.

And if the story is told well, it will leave the audience with chills.

Some more refined stories, those that have been passed through the wine press of popular culture, will end with a resounding “boo” or some other exclamation, leaving the listeners startled.

But the best stories end quietly, disturbingly.

I’ve heard many ghost stories in my day (ghost stories, it should be pointed out, are different from scary stories, in that the former involve beings from beyond the grave while the latter involve experiences beyond the pale), but the best came from Mike Hall, a youth group director I know.

Mike has the perfect tone for telling ghost stories. It falls somewhere between sincere and skeptical, with a slightly arched eyebrow that makes you wonder whether he’s telling the truth or just shining you on. Somehow, however, his style made the stories all the more convincing.

When I first came to know him, Mike was involved with the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, the only Catholic diocese in West Virginia. He traveled throughout the state organizing events and often stayed overnight in buildings owned by the church. These overnight stays informed most of his stories, and rightfully so.

Churches and church buildings, for that matter, are like funeral parlors in that they encourage the contemplation of the unexplained. In these places, we consider what happens beyond the physical realm.

I’m not sure I believe in ghosts, but I do believe in ghost stories. And I’ve been in places, like my grandparents’ house the night we moved their furniture after they passed away, where I’ve felt ... unsettled.

I think we take our ghost stories in the summer to relieve our chills with the balm and the warmth of the sun.

Cold to revive the soul, hot to relax it away.

Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the local section of the paper. He can be reached at dflatley@wdt.net.

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