Living the Hammer Life

I’ve always winced when some of the things I’ve investigated have been called “paranormal.” I investigate mysteries. There is no point in investigating mystery if you don’t have a chance of solving it. How can you solve the supernatural? You can’t. You can’t even investigate it. You can only investigate claims of the supernatural. Paranormal has become synonymous with supernatural, so we don’t need to parse the word and insist that it really only means something as yet explainable. Let’s just call it a mystery. It’s so much more of an inviting word. “Paranormal” is already a label. Mystery also takes in all genres, not just those most frequently thought of as paranormal like “ghosts.”

Perhaps I’m dating myself, but I prefer to liken investigating this topic to “doing the Hammer thing.” Yes, I’m speaking about the late great British film company Hammer Films. It gave us a genre of mystery, adventure, horror, dark deeds and twilight superstitions. I’ve been called the real life Kolchak— that’s a nice compliment— but I prefer the sophistication that Hammer sleuths projected, and the often erudite way they investigated subjects.

For the one genre that we associate with twilight,  “Occult” is so much the better word. It merely means “hidden.” It’s the old word used for the entire subject of the unexplained before something as inaccurate as the designation “New Age” or “paranormal” became popular.

Within this realm are Gothic cemeteries, midnight practices, ruined cloisters, and often the dreaded “B” word. No, not that. It’s a French word— Bourgeois. Not the American meaning. The French meaning. You also pronounce the “r” in French. All it literally means is a non royal citizen of a town. By extension it means city-dwelling culture, that dreaded element that lives with one goal . . . outdo the Joneses.

Power! The Hammer film
Power! The Hammer film “Witches” revealed how an otherwise unremarkable woman could lead a nest of country bumpkins into a murder cult. Joan Fontaine defies them here.

I’m a bit cynical about the Occult. Anybody who uses the “B” word is revealing cynicism. Let me tell you why. It has been my experience that many within the narrow city culture break free by engaging in  midnight ceremonies and bizarre rituals. By doing so they feel they’re no longer the obscure bourgeoisie. They now feel important. They are conduits of greater powers, practitioners of hidden knowledge.

Yet what is the substance of all this? Because they are robed in the night and ensconced in clandestine grottos, they are at the very least masters of what people fear the most— the unknown . . . the Hidden. Their knowledge is also arcane. People fear what they do not know. They fear the symbols of the Occult, for they come from the night and from behind drawn curtains. People fear the night. This is the Occult’s real power. It creates its own reality. People fear it more than they believe in it.

Ancient symbols, pentagrams, the goat of Mendes. . .
Ancient symbols, pentagrams, the goat of Mendes. . . Is there really power in such things? Perhaps. There is power in anything you believe in.

Does there have to be power behind such symbols and mysticism for it to be a danger? No, not really. It rests in what the practitioner believes. If you believe to be a witch means engaging in harmless nature religion and curing people with remedies from organic compounds in the forest, you will be harmless to a community. If you believe it means devil worship, voodoo, spells and infant sacrifice, you will be quite a problem for a constabulary. The case of Madam Voisin is classic. It ended with her head on the block in Louis XIV’s France.

Occult as a word now is reserved more or less for those who practice arcane rituals from old mysticism. On its own, this is rather insulated and there isn’t much interest for any sleuth. But anything that can go bump in the night can be backworked. That “bump” is so important. It’s a solid reaction that must have had an action.

Because of this, out of all that is so “outré,” there is one thing that can be investigated, and it is the most interesting. Yes, “Haunted Houses” if you must call them that. As I said, the supernatural can’t be investigated, but the effects of the unexplained can. Haunted houses can’t be “haunted” unless they’ve exhibited “symptoms.” Unusual sounds, poltergeist effects, moans and so forth mean a haunting. A haunted house is not an explanation or solution. It is a symptom. Therefore it can be investigated.

The Uninvited by Dorothy Macardle gave us our first sophisticated ghost story.
The Uninvited by Dorothy Macardle gave us our first sophisticated ghost story. It, too, was partly inspired by Borley Rectory.

Investigating claims of hauntings can be quite stimulating, and even very erudite in the right crowd. Such popular and influential films as The Haunting and Legend of Hell House were actually based on some of the real-life investigations carried out into the haunting of Borley Rectory in England, the Godfather of all haunted houses. . . . before Harry Price mucked it up. The plots they give us, to say the least, are very intriguing.

Though I’ve often disparaged “paranormal” I have often thought that the most thrilling thing would be to spend a weekend in such a grand old mansion with a sophisticated set of investigators and give the old qui vivre to an investigation. Some very stimulating discussion, that’s the thing!

we hear the legend for the first time. Table discussion on the past of the Balasco house -- The Legend of Hell House (1973).
We hear the legend for the first time. Table discussion on the past of the Balasco house — The Legend of Hell House (1973).

But, you may ask, what if the haunting truly is supernatural?

Investigating, Hammer Style. The Devil Rides Out. Classic 1960s Hammer.
Investigating, Hammer style. The Devil Rides Out. Classic 1960s Hammer.

Logic is a necessity to understand all things. Logic is immutable. Anything that has intelligence has volition. It will act according to its motive. It doesn’t matter if it’s angels and demons and ghosts, or, to put it quite like in Legend of Hell House, “surviving personalities.” If they exist they will act according to their motive and thus the criterion of logic must apply. The symptoms in a haunted house can be backworked. Intelligence can be second-guessed.

In future installments, to celebrate October, let’s have a look at what trail investigation and some solid comparative analysis blazes for us on the subject of “Haunted Houses.”

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