Category Archives: Commentary

Ancient cover: ψυχή or Psycho?

Here’s a rather random thing I discovered while listening to Spotify. I’ve been re-reading The Iliad this week, and I thought I’d see if there were any ancient Greek music reconstruction albums on Spotify. In my searches, I found a set of albums by the Petros Tabouris Ensemble. So I put these on to play in the background as I read.

One track that appeared on multiple albums (under different names) caught my ear. It had a short melodic line that was teasingly familiar to me. Have a listen and see if this reminds you of anything:

Petros Tabouris Ensemble – Bacchants’ Longings (Vakhon pothi) (Spotify link.)

[If you don’t have or want to try Spotify, you can also hear a decent sample of this track on Amazon.]

After a couple of listens, I realized what I was recognizing:

Listening to these two tracks back-to-back, I have to conclude that it’s not just a coincidence. If it were just the snippet of melody, perhaps. But the entire rhythmic texture is there, too. I don’t know if it’s a clever homage or covert cover (in one of its versions it is about the Bacchae, after all) or if it’s a sneaky theft, but I haven’t seen any reviews of the Petros Tabouris Ensemble that point out this connection. I think it’s a kind of marvelous conflation of the ancient and the modern. Of course, maybe Bernard Hermann is the one who modeled his theme on a Greek folk song, but I haven’t seen that mentioned anywhere, either.


Gamification of Literature

[Here is another post that I originally wrote for The Missouri Review‘s blog that I’m archiving here. Check out the TMR’s new website!]

Great Gatsby for NES (Start Screen)

A few news items have popped up this week about Simon Meek and his company’s plans to release adaptations of literary works for game consoles — a version of the spy novel The Thirty Nine Steps is currently in production, and Meek mentions Wuthering Heights and Crime and Punishment as future candidates.

Meek is quick to say

that he’s not trying to make game versions of these stories; instead, he’s using gaming platforms and game-building technologies to create adaptations of the books:

“Players enter the stories through the events that take place in that story, and at that point experience the story from the inside out,” he explains. “We place them in the world in which the story is set, and are using a combination of original art and games engine to create some truly stunning environments. Add to that audio design and original composition, and the world of the book is brought to life. On this stage, we then let the player progress through an array of media that is directly taken/reinterpreted from the book.” [Source]

These may not be “games,” but he still refers to the audience as “players” and elsewhere emphasizes the interactive nature of this new “experience” of the book. They may not be games in the sense of having a set of rules and victory conditions, but they are clearly being modeled on virtual worlds and the principles of game-based narrative (that is, variable or conditional navigation through a set of planned environments/encounters).

Now, I don’t have a problem with this idea on its face. It’s just one form of adaptation of out many. It will reveal its own artistic strengths and make its own artistic sacrifices as theatric, cinematic, graphic, and all other forms of adaptation do. I have some concerns about the concept that I’ll mention, though, with the understanding that I want to remain open-minded about how successful the actual execution might be. My main concern lies with the idea of experiencing the story “from the inside out.” First of all, is that actually any different from how we experience narratives in printed text? Do we feel alienated from the narration? Do we feel “outside” of the book because it’s just words on a page? If we’re hypothetical members of the generation that doesn’t read for pleasure, maybe text is alienating and foreign, and the idea of reconstructing a world in your imagination as you’re reading is burdensome and undesireable. But I still cling to the hope that such an experience of reading is hypothetical (and if this is a genuine cultural crisis — our kids don’t have the imaginative skills to make reading “work” — then I doubt that adaptations like this would do anything to solve that problem; if anything, they would seem to provide yet another form of “prosthetic” imagination, if you will, that frees you from the necessity of visualizing the story-world and its characters yourself).

In fact, this “immersive” experience of the book as 3d-rendered graphical world is actually more likely to put you at one remove from the characters, compared to what you would get from the text. In the text, point of view can collapse so that you share and inhabit the points of view of the characters (and not always just one at a time, but often in sophisticated and complex layerings). I can’t envision how this game-style version of the narrative can provide many point of view options besides a free-floating camera, that maybe becomes first-person occasionally (I don’t get the feeling from Meek’s descriptions that you would actually play as characters, but maybe you will). To my mind, this management of “the camera” (or however you control the point of view) adds an additional layer of mediation to the story — it puts you at an added remove from what would be “narration” in the text. It emphasizes the way in which you are outside of the text, the way in which you are a spectator, rather than drawing you inside in the way that narration can.

Promotional photo for Hitchcock's PsychoAnother issue with this is that if control of point of view is suddenly ceded to the reader/player, that removes a major aspect of the artistic craft of the original. Film adaptation is already more limited in the kinds of points of view it can present, but it has its conventions and artistry in managing point of view. But if the idea is that I can observe the scene from any angle, if I can choose to look at whatever I want to look at, then a fundamental change has occurred in the nature of the art I’m looking at. It ceases to be the experience of precise selections and composition by the artist and becomes something like an architectural exercise. It ceases to be Hitchcock framing the looming Bates house in a low-angle shot (looming only because of that choice of angle) and becomes you the tourist with a camcorder wandering around the Universal Studios backlot. [If I were more familiar with The Thirty Nine Steps, I’d use a more appropriate example from it, but I’m not, so I won’t.]

One could counter-argue that this freedom allows the reader/player to become an artist themselves, to create their own cinematography for their individualized adaptation. And sure, maybe that’s true. There are musicians that have made all the individual tracks make up a single recording available for fans to make their own remixes from, and there’s certainly value in that kind of creative experience. But it would be a mistake to overlook or understate the value that’s lost, as well. Perhaps the positive side is that people playing with “directing” their own version of the book through one of these game interfaces might develop a greater appreciation of the very challenging arts of cinematography and film editing, when they see how far short their own initial efforts fall. But I’m not convinced that this experience necessarily does much for furthering appreciation of point of view in the text, which is really a very different kind of technical challenge (despite the fact that so many creative writing texts lean on the cinematic metaphor as a crutch to describe point of view — to the ultimate disservice of their students, I suspect).

And that brings me to my last point, which is the naivete that I think is present in the assumption that books need “saving” through digital enhancement. I’m curious and intrigued by the idea of these virtual world adaptations, and I do think there’s something compelling (if not necessarily revolutionary) about the idea of transforming stories into these kinds of architectural constructs that can be navigated at will. But there’s a revolutionary streak the rhetoric here (the article I’ve been quoting from, for example, is ridiculously entitled “The Reinvention of Literature”), that seems totally unearned. Meek really rubs me the wrong way when we’re told:

Meek says he doesn’t like that electronic books still have people reading printed words on white pages that need to be turned. “Which doesn’t make any sense in a digital world,” he tells me. These electronic books are still too rooted in the form that gave them birth, the physical side of the media, he believes.

To me this sounds a bit like music industry people in the early days of MTV suggesting that music videos are the future of music consumption: why would you want just boring old music when you can have music and images? (I’m not sure if anyone actually argued this, but if they did the analogy would hold.) We’re already seeing a trend for e-books to be “appified” for the iPad generation, filled with links and embedded video and background sound effects or music that plays while you read specific scenes. And I’m not opposed to such aesthetic experiments, but I don’t think they’re the next step (much less a necessary one) in the evolution in literature. After all, if we really felt that text alone was insufficient, almost all our books would be done in the style of Illustrated Classics or graphic novels. Most audiobooks would be dramatizations performed by casts of actors rather than single narrating voices. But it has not been so. Meek may be bringing something interesting to the world of digital, game-like entertainments, but I don’t think he’s revolutionizing literature by any stretch of our apparently stunted imaginations.

Digital model of the Bates house from Psycho

P.S.: Anyone interested in a game that is literally about navigating a literary text should check out “Silent Conversation,” a lovely, atmospheric browser-based game by Gregory Weir. I think Weir achieves something far more aesthetically compelling with his particular approach to digital adaptation than it sounds like Meek will manage, even if does just boil down to an advanced version of concrete poetry.

[Hint for “Silent Conversation”: if you just want a quick experience of what the game is like, I recommend that you do the brief tutorial (which you must do to unlock the first set of other texts), and then do William Carlos Williams’ “XXII” and Matsuo Bashou’s “There is an old pond…” so that you can then unlock and play through “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The prose texts are quite interesting in their own way, but they’re pretty long and best tried after doing a sampler of the poetry.]

Also, for laughs, literary gamers might also enjoy the retro parody The Great Gatsby for NES or Moby Dick: The Video Game.


600,000 Characters in Need of an Audience

Child writing with crayon.

[Here’s another post I wrote for The Missouri Review, which I’m going to reproduce wholesale here.]

GalleyCat reports that 45,000 kids between the ages of 5 and 17 are signed up this year as participants in National Novel Writing Month. I’ve started several times over the past two weeks to write something about NaNoWriMo, but always stopped because A) there has been so much polemical discussion of NaNoWriMo in the blogosphere this month that there seems to be little more to add to the discussion, and B) I don’t really know what I think about NaNoWriMo. I find myself vacillating wildly between positive and negative responses. At this point, I would tentatively say that I think NaNoWriMo probably does have a positive effect at the level of individual participation (that it is a “good” experience for people to have), but that as a collective force and (nascent) institution it does indeed project some problematic and troubling values concerning the nature and function of art.

But rather than rehashing what some of those questionable values are — which has been done many times elsewhere, most especially in Laura Miller’s controversial piece — I want to look briefly at the question of audience, which GalleyCat’s statistic put me in mind of. Miller asked who’s going to read all these novels, and a lot of the negative response to her has replied “Who cares?” You write your novel for yourself, the argument goes, and participation in NaNoWriMo is essentially an exercise in self-esteem building and personal achievement. This, one could argue, makes the act of writing not about “art,” per se, but about accomplishment, which is similar to how the fad of marathon-running has made those events no so much about athleticism but about ticking off personal checkboxes. And, of course, whenever someone argues that whenever the seriousness of an endeavor has been diluted by the mass participation of “tourists,” cries of elitism are sure to follow (and I use the word “tourist” quite deliberately here — the problem is not amateurs vs. professionals; it’s people who take the art/sport/hobby seriously for its own sake vs. those who only want to fulfill short-term, personal goals, or those interested in advancing the state of the field [and, as it were, being resident in that field] vs. those who just want a diversion from the mainline of their lives [who want to visit, but aren’t really interested in risking or investing anything in it]).

All of this is merely a long-winded way of saying that if your answer to “Who’s going to read all this work” is “Who cares,” then that is, at heart, a denial of the communicative purpose of art (which is one of the troubling values associated with NaNoWriMo). But this, too, is not really what I want to talk about. I think it’s rather easy for many of us who think of ourselves as serious writers to slip into that “Who cares?” mindset just because getting an audience is so hard. The more you begin to feel like nobody out there wants to read your work, the more tempting it becomes to dismiss with a contemptuous wave of the hand the whole idea of seeking out an audience. If I can’t really see a “them” for me to write to (or for), then maybe I am better off thinking that I’m writing just for “me.” [A variant on this is the feeling that one is only writing for other writers, an attitude endemic to creative writing programs, and, indeed, to literary journals as well.]

I have a stock lament that I often wind up presenting to students in my fiction workshops (though it cannot be easily characterized as inspiring or empowering) that culminates in the complaint that the only venues for fiction (especially long-form fiction) are essentially national. Are you an amateur musician? You can play at an open mic night. You can play at large family gatherings. With even slightly above average talent, you could well play a paying gig somewhere locally. If you’re a visual artist, there are fairs and fleamarkets (if not galleries) where you can share your work with your community.

But local venues for writers are much harder to come by. Open mic nights can work for poets and perhaps writers of short shorts. You can circulate your work to your family and friends, but it is in the nature of reading that even this most intimate audience can feel awfully distant (as compared with the immediate reward of playing a few songs in the living room after Thanksgiving dinner). Really, if you want to be read, you have to be submitting to literary magazines and publishers who are mostly all drawing from a nationwide (if not global) pool of submitters and trying to reach a nationwide (if not global) pool of readers. That’s a very competitive field to wade into. Perhaps the only harder fields to break into are screen and television writing.

[An aside: there are certainly some niche genres that support primarily local or regional audiences, such as certain veins of historical fiction or mysteries (set in your hometown!), and I find writers and publishers who have tapped into that kind of audience rather fascinating.]

This seems a very dispiriting proposition. If you gave an otherwise disinterested person the choice of an art form to learn, there are so many more arts that offer the real possibility of modest but meaningful reward that it’s hard to picture that student selecting writing as the one to learn and practice. And thus my heart breaks a little bit to think of all those adolescent authors putting hours and hours into their NaNoWriMo manuscript, with no outlet for it other than a loving parent here and a generous teacher there.

But maybe I’m wrong. Outside of perhaps a handful of metropolitan environments, I do seriously doubt that local venues for nurturing local would-be novelists will ever be very significant (other than as quid pro quo workshops and writers’ groups — I’ll read your book if you read mine). However, the internet has given us a new version of the “local” scale. You may not be able to sell your novel out of the back of your car at a real world fleamarket (although some people do, or so I’ve heard), but you can post it for free or cheaply to any number of online publishing markets now. I know that fan fiction communities have been vibrant and supportive (and populated with ordinary readers, not just writers willing to read each other) for a couple of decades now. Perhaps other, less genre-bound online writing communities are just as engaged (though I haven’t encountered many).

So I turn the question(s) over to you: Who is your writing for? What venues do you have for your work besides the traditional, national markets? Is there a future in “local” writing, and what does “local” even mean in a digital world?

———

Two addenda:

1.) I wonder if the internet doesn’t foster a somewhat false sense of limitless audience. It’s easy to go to some amateur musician’s YouTube video and see all the comments on his or her song (even if a fair number of those comments are less than kind), and thus it’s easy to imagine that if you put anything up on YouTube, you’ll get an audience (even if it’s an audience mostly of hecklers). But of course most of the videos we tend to see on YouTube are the ones that already have an audience of some kind. Someone’s linking to them or they’re being bumped up in the search rankings through other sorts of viewership. We tend to see the stuff that’s being seen, naturally. But there are plenty of videos going unwatched on YouTube, plenty of stories going unread on blogs and fictions forums, plenty of e-books going unsold. The idea of massive internet audiences is largely the product of confirmation bias.

2.) I was going to add a question at the end along the lines of “Would you be more likely to send your child off to music lessons or…” and then realized that “writing lessons” doesn’t really work, because there really isn’t such a thing. There are writing camps and kid’s writers’ groups, and maybe those are roughly comparable to the idea of taking lessons on an instrument. But the idea that we don’t really have any well-established or customary institutions for engaging kids with writing in the same way that we have for music or drama or the visual arts probably says something significant about our culture’s attitude towards writing and what it is (and isn’t) good for. Creative writing is either schoolwork or entirely self-directed. I think few kids experience writing (relative to other arts forms) in other ways. But, as above, I’m happy to be proven wrong on this perception.


Recycling

The Missouri Review

I’ve been making a few posts to The Missouri Review‘s blog recently (and hope to keep doing so throughout this academic year), and I figured I might as well quasi-recycle those posts (at least by linking to them) here. So, without further ado:

“The Role of Literary Publishers in the Digital Age” (from Sept. 29, 2010), wherein I consider how the digital publishing affects both writers and publishers of literary fiction (long and short), nonfiction, and poetry, and propose I mini-manifesto for what the role of literary journals should be in the new environment.

“Medium and Message” (from Oct. 22, 2010), wherein I respond to a Nobel laureate’s words of caution about the literary quality of e-books.


Naming Our Gear

So, I was reading Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae and came across this passage:

Arthur himself put on a leather jerkin worthy of so great a king. On his head he placed a golden helmet, with a crest carved in the shape of a dragon; and across his shoulders a circular shield called Pridwen, on which there was painted a likeness of the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, which forced him to be thinking perpetually of her. He girded on his peerless sword, called Caliburn, which was forged in the Isle of Avalon. A spear called Ron graced his right hand: long, broad in the blade and thirsty for slaughter.

[from Lewis Thorpe’s 1966 Penguin translation, p. 217]

Firstly: a spear called Ron? What’s next? “And then Arthur put on his noble boots, Bob and Terry.”

Secondly: I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by the tradition of giving weapons personal names, so frequently seen in chivalric romances and Norse sagas. Someday I’d like to do some actual research into the topic, but in the meantime I wonder what the state of this custom is today. Do soldiers name their weapons? I know of artillery pieces that have names, but I don’t know about rifles and sidearms.

On the civilian side, I know plenty of people who name their cars, and some who name their houses. Some musicians name their instruments (though it seems a honor accorded only to certain types of instruments — guitars, certainly, but pianos… less commonly). What else do we name?

Well, computers and “smart” electronics — usually because we’re asked to. Your iPod prompts you to give it a name (mine: “Trumpy,” after the alien in the movie Pod People of MST3K fame). For networking reasons, you have to give your computers names (mine: various Flannery O’Connor characters). So we might expect to see this trend continue even beyond devices that require you to register them with a name. Will we be naming our smart phones? How many people already refer to their devices by their “name,” rather than saying “my iPod” or “my laptop”? I don’t know any, myself, but I’m sure they’re out there.

Anyway, this might be yet another element that blends geek cultures. An old classmate of mine once critiqued another’s choice of network password — the name of an obscure Lord of the Rings character (and this was in the days before the movies) — by saying “Any hacker worth his salt will know a great deal about Tolkien.” It’s fascinating to me that there is this strange confluence of tech culture and medievalesque culture. Bestowing totemic names upon our most valuable tools is just one more example of that cross-over.


Rat-Powered Hurdy-Gurdy

One of my ambitions (whenever I find myself with about $3,000 to burn) is to own and learn to play a hurdy gurdy (to add to my collection of instruments that make many listeners flinch). As such, I often find myself browsing You Tube for clips of people doing unconventional things with this medieval instrument. One of my favorites (and one of the first hurdy-gurdy clips I found on You Tube several years ago) is this fantastic performance by Matthias Loibner:

But today I stumbled across a clip of hurdy-gurdy innovation that, while not musically terribly practical, is absolutely brilliant. The rat-powered hurdy-gurdy:

I haven’t heard of the group Rosa Crux before, but judging by some of their other clips, they seem to be half experimental, half performance art, all with a metal sheen. Intriguing.


Buttery Abscesses

I was listening to Dr. Mark Crislip’s daily “A Gobbet o’ Pus” podcast (which currently consists of material from last year’s blog posts), and he had a line that I feel absolutely compelled to share. Apparently, colonies of Streptococcus anginosus, which can cause abscesses in the lungs, are said to smell like buttered popcorn. This is because they produce the chemical diacetyl:

What is cool is that the reason it smells like buttered popcorn is that diacetyl is one of the compounds that gives butter that butter smell, and chardonnay that chardonnay taste. Next time you have that fake butter spread, think to yourself, “I can’t believe its not Strep anginosus!

I can’t wait to find an occasion to deploy that line, though I might have to make friends with more doctors and biologists if I want to actually get a laugh…

You subscribe to the Gobbet o’ Pus podcast here, and check out Crislip’s other two excellent podcasts, the Persiflagers Puscast (reviewing the monthly infectious disease literature) and the Quackcast (excoriating supplements, complementary and alternative medicine).


Today’s Disgusting Tidbit of Milton Lore

From The Book of Memory, by Mary Carruthers:

Metaphors which use digestive activities are so powerful and tenacious that digestion should be considered another basic functional model for the complementary activities of reading and composition, collection and recollection. Unlike the heart, no medical tradition seems to have placed any of the sensory-processing functions in the stomach, but “the stomach of memory” as a metaphoric model had a long run. Milton, his biographers agree, mentally composed a store of verses daily, which he then dictated to a secretary. […] And Milton’s anonymous biographer, speaking also of his mental composition, remarks that if the poet’s secretary were late, “he would complain, saying he wanted to be milked.” (207)

I now want to write a poem/song and title it “Milking Milton.” (Actually, I like the title “Milk Me, Milton!” better, but that sort of gets the quote backwards…)


Types of People According to Movie Titles

So, I saw a preview for “Funny People” on TV today, and just shortly afterwards noticed that “Smart People” was playing on one of the movie channels. The contrast of the two titles struck me and instantly made me think of “Ordinary People” and that led me to hop onto the IMDB and see just how many “X People” titles there are — I thought it might make an amusing list. Judge for yourself here:

[I’ve left out TV shows and translated titles (for the most part); on just a few I’ve omitted the colon + subtitle to keep the list pure.]

  • Bad People
  • Beaver People
  • Bizarre People
  • Boat People
  • Cat People
  • Cave People
  • Classified People
  • Clean People
  • Creature People
  • Cult People
  • Dead People
  • Decent People
  • Dependable People
  • Dog Gone People
  • Everyday People
  • Fierce People
  • Funny People
  • Good People
  • Happy People
  • Highlands People
  • His People
  • Holy Ghost People
  • Ice People
  • Important People
  • Invisible People
  • Jesus People
  • Lint People
  • Little People
  • Lowlands People
  • Married People
  • Miserable People
  • Moon People
  • Mountains People
  • My People
  • Nice People
  • Night People
  • Non People
  • Normal People
  • Orange People
  • Ordinary People
  • Other People
  • Our People
  • Painted People
  • People
  • Picture People
  • Pitch People
  • Popcorn People
  • Pretty Ugly People
  • Processed People
  • Rat People
  • Reel People
  • Respectable People
  • Rich People
  • River People
  • Ruthless People
  • Salmon People
  • Sample People
  • Secret People
  • Seedpeople
  • Shadow People
  • Shiny People
  • Shooting People
  • Shopping People
  • Show People
  • Shy People
  • Simple, Nice, People
  • Sind Desert People
  • Sky People
  • Sleepy People
  • Smart People
  • Some People
  • Special People
  • Strange People
  • Stunt People
  • Summer People
  • Sunset People
  • Superior People
  • Swell People
  • Three-Five People
  • Toothless People
  • U People
  • Used People
  • Venice Beach People
  • Village People
  • Virgin People
  • Water People
  • Wild People
  • Winter People
  • You Lucky People
  • Young People

And as a variation, we have “The X People”:

  • The Alligator People
  • The Bat People
  • The Best People
  • The Boat People
  • The Bubble People
  • The Cemetery People
  • The Dog People
  • The Finished People
  • The Forgotten People
  • The Gamma People
  • The Garth People
  • The Goodbye People
  • The Happy People
  • The Ice People
  • The Little People
  • The Lost People
  • The Lounge People
  • The Missing People
  • The Mole People
  • The Ona People
  • The Other People
  • The People
  • The Pig People
  • The Rain People
  • The Salt Water People
  • The Sandgrass People
  • The Secret People
  • The Sleeping People
  • The Slime People
  • The Terrible People
  • The Twilight People
  • The Water People
  • The Winter People

Some fun connections:

Amusing Alphabetical Serendipity:

  • Beaver People / Bizarre People [One and the same? Oh, and Beaver People is from 1930, in case some might think it a different type of movie.]
  • Dependable People / Dog Gone People
  • Married People / Miserable People [::rimshot::]
  • Show People / Shy People

The Beast in Us:

  • Beaver People
  • Cat People
  • Creature People
  • Rat People
  • Salmon People
  • The Alligator People
  • The Bat People
  • The Dog People
  • The Mole People
  • The Pig People

Opposites:

  • Highlands People / Lowlands People
  • Special People / Ordinary People
  • Good People / Bad People
  • Important People / Invisible People
  • Beautiful People / Pretty Ugly People
  • Happy People / Miserable People
  • Nice People / Fierce People
  • Summer People / Winter People
  • Clean People / The Slime People
  • Dependable People / Wild People

“Who Is the Third Who Walks Always Beside You?”: Ghost-Hunting in Rural Tennessee

[This content was originally published on the old Rats Alley site in 2002, long before our migration to WordPress. You can still see the original version here.]

 

 

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
– But who is that on the other side of you?

–T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” (359-365)

A Preamble, Containing More Ghostly Occurrences Than the Actual Investigations

A couple of years ago I had the immense good fortune to be able to study in Britain for about six summer weeks. While there, I visited both Stonehenge and Loch Ness, thereby experiencing firsthand the two places which most occupied my imagination from the ages of 8 to 13. With these goals fulfilled, only one great childhood dream remained — to see a ghost. And out of the entire world of paranormal and occult phenomena I believed in as an adolescent, only ghosts still linger on the fringes of my belief system undismissed. A good (and very credible) friend of my family has seen ghosts on three separate occasions, and my own father has a story about seeing what may have been the resident ghost of the Orpheum Theatre here in Memphis while rehearsing a play.

Living in a less than spiritually active slice of suburbia and not wanting to have to experience the death of a loved one, I realized that if I wanted to have a ghostly experience then I would need to bring myself to them. One problem with this plan, though: it assumes I am not a gutless coward who can barely check out books from the literature stacks of his college library because they are on the eminently creepy sixth floor.

The Burrow Library

In my defense, a number of people I have spoken to also believe that the Burrow Library at Rhodes College has a certain evil aura. I don’t actually recall feeling particularly creeped out on the sixth floor until my Junior year (but of course, the amount of time I had to spend there increased exponentially in my Junior and Senior years), but once I was aware of it, it did take a serious force of will to make myself mount that last flight of steps every time I needed to double-check a Barth quote. And then a friend of mine described how whenever she started down the stairs from the sixth floor it always felt like there was a pair of hands hovering just centimeters above her back, ready to give her a good hard shove. After that, I had trouble leaving the place, since I realized that the uneasy feeling I had been experiencing was also just like that of malicious hands.

To my knowledge there is no historical reason to expect the Library to be haunted (although there are a few vaguely Masonic connections which campus conspiracy theorists like to expound upon), and more likely the unwholesome atmosphere has more to do with the architecture and the way the books muffle ambient sound to create a unnatural stillness. But does this make me feel any better? Of course not.

Most of the reputedly haunted locations in Memphis would have required not only awkward permissions to gain access to but also an amount of courage I was not fully prepared to produce. The Woodruff-Fontaine House in Memphis’ Victorian Village is said to have a few resident spirits, though I doubt its curators would be very keen on having a thoroughly amateur ghost-hunting team clomp around through it. Also, again, the Orpheum, in addition to its more famous auditorium spirit (a little girl in white), is said to be cursed with an unusually high injury rate in its kitchen and sports a basement in which investigators have allegedly been attacked by an unseen force — this latter information coming from an acquaintance who had done some work at the theater, though I must admit it has never been corroborated by a second source. For most of my childhood I had believed in the notion that ghosts were as harmless as projected images. They might be sad, they might be playful, they might be startling or creepy, but (despite Hollywood) I never thought that they might be actively malevolent. The knowledge that my notions could be wrong certainly did not increase the courage quotient.

A further detriment was a perceived lack of proper investigative equipment. I had seen “ghost-hunting” kits for sale before, featuring digital thermometers and electromagnetic field detectors, occasionally thermal imaging equipment — I had none of this, nor the money to spend on acquiring it. Leave the hunt to the professionals, I decided. Or at least to the fanatic and financially-able hobbyists.

EVP

I’m beginning to hear voices and there’s no one around
–Bob Dylan, “Cold Irons Bound

And then I found out about EVP: Electronic Voice Phenomena. While bored at work during the summer of 2001 — on average I was having one or two students/customers coming in a week — I began scouring the internet for good amateur ghost-hunting societies, hoping to read some interesting anecdotes or see some compelling photographs. And while there were these (though the photos were by and large a disappointment), what really caught my attention were the groups who spent their time hunched over tape recorders, trying to make out messages from beyond the grave in the whispers of tape hiss. And then, most excitingly, posting their findings on the web as audio files which really creeped out a certain person who had to spend his days totally alone in a cubby-filled space.

Some EVP Links:
(Just do a search for “EVP” and you’ll find plenty.)
EVPInternational Ghost Hunters Society

Ghostwave.com

The Anomalist

The premise of EVP is that dull human ears cannot hear ghosts, but microphones can. The actual physics of this situation are fuzzy at best – some claim the sounds are recorded below (or sometimes above) the frequency we can normally hear or reproduce with our own vocal cords. But with some enhancement, these sounds can be heard off of a recording. Others argue that the phenomenon is electromagnetic in nature, and that either the ghosts’ EMF energy influences the microphone or that the message is directly imprinted on the magnetic tape in the cassette — this supposedly can occur even while the tape is packed away somewhere, not being recorded upon in the least.

This last notion I find patently ridiculous — it would require the spirit to somehow etch its message on the wound tape spool in exact concordance with industry standards for playback speed if the result were to be at all intelligible. Of course, listening to some of the online samples, intelligibility is apparently a very relative term. I find some of the purported ghostly communications to be clear cases of wishful thinking, some have been “enhanced” and manipulated by computer to a ridiculous degree, and others sound like distorted background noise. There also seems to be a clear risk of recording errant radio signals which are also inaudible to the human ear — I, for example, happen to own a CD player that plays the radio broadcast of some unidentifiable station very, very faintly in the background whenever the power is turned on. I don’t trust all investigators’ equipment not to have the same problem at times.

However, there are some, a very few, that are genuinely chilling. And, most frighteningly, these tend to be the more malevolent ones, voices cursing the investigators for their intrusion, hissing demands that they leave, or warning them of the presence of some other, dangerous entity. Hearing some of these made it especially difficult to feel comfortable working alone all day. When I played them back later for my friend Nathan Ragain, many seemed far less convincing than when I first head them. But still, EVP recording presented me with a very cheap, practical way to conduct some ghost-hunting of my own. I asked Nathan and his wife Missy if they were interested in joining me, and they said that they were. Certainly, I could not have done it without them — even if all three of us may be somewhat skittish by nature (each to his or her own degree, of course), together we could summon a modicum of courage.

Tools of the Trade

For our expedition I assembled what seemed to be the appropriate gear. These were:

  1. A camera: my 35mm Canon Eos Rebel, with telephoto lens. Photographs are a staple of ghost-hunting expeditions, even if I myself am somewhat unimpressed with the resulting “evidence.” This usually consists of pictures of tombstones with blurry white streaks around them or small points of light. There is a whole nomenclature for these “orbs” and “vortices” with accompanying “explanations” for what each is. And while I am not enough of a photographer to be able to fully explain these blurry aberrations, I have to consider that the misty, midnight, outdoor conditions of a cemetery are not exactly ideal, nor can the strange effects of a flashbulb fully be appreciated by someone witnessing the photograph being taken. So I’m skeptical. But I certainly wasn’t going to cheat myself out of a chance to accumulate some blurry photographs of my own.
  2. A tape recorder: a borrowed Panasonic Slim Line with a built in microphone – the kind of tape recorder kids in my generation grew up with, but which is seldom seen in today’s Walkman and microcassette world. Wisely, I outfitted it with new batteries before taking it out into the field. This wasn’t the most ideal recorder, I suppose, since most ghost hunters recommend using an external mic in order to minimize mechanical noise and also to get the mic away from the investigator’s body and clothing.
  3. A minidisc recorder: my own Sony MZ-R70, normally used for dictation and home musical performance recordings — it will certainly be used to record the Rats Alley House Band, should such a frightening thing come into being. This recording would serve as our control. One of the advantages of a minidisc recording is the absence of tape hiss (it is also much easier to input into the computer). I hadn’t found any clear answers on whether or not EVP should work in a digital recording. Some people said it would (these, naturally, adhered to the inhuman frequency theory, rather than the EMF explanations), though virtually none reported actually using a minidisc recorder in their investigations — probably because they are beyond the normal budget of an amateur ghost enthusiast (mine was a Christmas gift). In the spirit of experimentation I decided to bring my minidisc along. Certainly, having two separate recordings would be very valuable in eliminating any false positives. In this case we did use an external microphone, though not a terribly good one. This was a clip-on microphone, designed for use with computers but with which I have had very good experiences recording dictation on minidisc. However, as a clip-on, it tended to pick up more of my own personal noise than I would have liked, although the sound quality itself was quite satisfactory.
  4. A flashlight: we hoped this wouldn’t be necessary, since we intended to ghost-hunt in daylight only — perhaps putting our investigation at a bit of a disadvantage, given the traditional hours of ghostly activity, but at least insuring that there would be an investigation and we wouldn’t be too scared to get out of the car.

Plan A

For sheer atmosphere, I proposed that we record in one of the many small family cemeteries that are scattered off of fire roads in Natchez Trace State Park, in West Tennessee, off I-40 between Memphis and Nashville. Nathan, Missy, and I had visited these before, while camping at Natchez Trace. I had been hoping to find a particularly old cemetery I had visited as a child during a ranger-conducted Halloween hayride where we had taken rubbings of the stones, and I remembered some very unusual ones from that experience. Unfortunately, during our camping trip we never found this particular graveyard, although many of the others we did explore were striking in their own ways — particularly in their variety of homemade markers. There was also something very satisfying about trekking up the gravel roads into Natchez Trace’s pine forest to find these small, fenced plots, surrounded by towering trees and blanketed with orange pine needles.

Certainly, Memphis has some spectacular cemeteries of its own – chief among them historic Elmwood Cemetery, quite a remarkable place. However, besides being nervous about being observed toting recording equipment around the tombs, there remains the pragmatic issue of needing to avoid background noise, be it children playing somewhere behind a fence or traffic on the interstate loop which borders Elmwood. No, going out into the country seemed to be the safest thing to do. Perhaps we will visit Memphis’ own places of rest in the future.

But as it was, we were at something of a loss to find an opportunity to take a weekend up to Natchez Trace, as our weekends were eaten up with various prior commitments. We had wanted to make the expedition a camping trip, but as winter rapidly approached, this seemed less and less likely.

Plan B

My family takes traditional trips to Fall Creek Falls State Park, located in the Cumberland Mountains of Mideast Tennessee, going there every Fall and Easter – originally camping or staying in the lodge, though for the past ten years or so we’ve moved up to cabins. This year we had a cabin for the weekend before Thanksgiving, and I invited Nathan and Missy to join us in the hopes that we might find some mountain cemeteries out there to make recordings in. If nothing else, I figured we could stop by Natchez Trace on the drive back home.

The omens for the trip were not good. Our loyal 1992 Toyota Previa minivan decided to lose some valve or other and landed itself in the shop, waiting for a part to be shipped from places unknown. My brother landed himself his first real job and was required at mandatory training during that same weekend. The day we were supposed to leave, we found ourselves calling car rental places all over town and trying to figure out whether or not my father would go with us or stay with my teenage brother. Right before going to a rental place that afternoon, the mechanic called to announce, surprisingly, that our van was repaired. Nathan and Missy arrived around 6:00 and we were off (just the two of them and my mother and I) on the five-and-a-half hour drive to Fall Creek Falls.

The Investigations

Myers Cemetery, Greener Cemetery, and Mt. Comfort Cemetery

The rain has such a lovely sound
To those who are six feet under ground
The leaves will bury every year
And no one knows I’m gone.

–Tom Waits, “No One Knows I’m Gone

[Transcripts: I have transcribed the recordings of all three investigations. These are also posted in “The Transcription Project” on this site.]

Myers Cemetery[Transcript]

No need to recap our extremely pleasant weekend in Fall Creek Falls. There were no supernatural occurrences to speak of. Around noon on Sunday, having checked out of our cabin, we began the drive home, planning to make a stop off in Natchez Trace (about four hours away) on the way. However, on the outskirts of Fall Creek Falls, we saw a sign reading “Myers Cemetery” pointing down a side road.

“Ah,” we said, “how fortuitous. Let us examine a Cumberland cemetery before heading back into our home territory.” And so we turned down the road, which I believe was called “Myers Cemetery Road.”

The cemetery was a fair ways off the highway. It was quite a pleasant place, very bright and clean, with only a few large trees and shrubs. It reminded me of the sort of cemetery typically attached to small Baptist or bible churches in West Tennessee: only an acre or two in size, with upright gravemarkers of various design laid out in tidy rows. Most of the markers in Myers Cemetery were fairly new, not more than fifty years old on average, even though some of the actual burials were much older. We had little difficulty reading the information on the markers, generally. As for recording conditions, the day was quiet, the weather fair and unseasonably warm. The cemetery was surrounded by woods, not terribly thick but sufficient to muffle any noise from the highway a mile or so back.

I gave Nathan the tape recorder and I took the minidisc, clipping its microphone onto my shirt. After synchronizing our recordings (with a very technical “One-two-three” count), we began the investigation in earnest. It was at about this point that we realized that we didn’t really have much of a clue as to how to conduct this sort of investigation. My web-surfing had turned up two major schools of thought on EVP gathering: the Active and the Passive. The Passive folks advocated taking your recorder out to a haunted location (preferably one with controlled access, like a room in a house) and leaving it there, recording all by itself, to be collected later. The downside to this approach was that if the recording wasn’t being monitored (or access strictly controlled) it was hard to guarantee that it hadn’t been tampered with. It also assumed that ghosts like to talk to themselves.

Who writes these things? Creepy!

The Active people eschew all that and actively attempt to engage the ghosts in conversation. The end result of this practice is that it is the investigators, rather than the ghosts, who end up talking to themselves. A good chunk of the EVP samples posted on websites, though, did seem to be responsive in nature, even if not always to direct questions. Usually the purported ghostly voices would remark on something incidental the investigator had said (and I find it unfortunate that the webmasters of the EVP sites haven’t provided larger clips in which the context of the recordings can be heard — often we just have to take their word that the ghostly sounds are in response to something an investigator muttered).

The séance-like proceedings of the most die-hard Active EVPers did not appeal to me. For one thing, they seemed vaguely confrontational, and if the malevolent voices I had heard told me anything it was “Avoid Confrontation.” So I decided it would be best to take a middle-of-the-road approach. I would not attempt to engage the spirits in a direct exchange, but I would try to supply them with a wealth of stupid, obvious observations that I hoped they might feel compelled to comment on.

For example: at Myers, I notice a tree stump at the head of a grave and say: “Looks like this one had a tree at it. I wonder how big the tree was….” The ellipsis, of course, is where the spirit in the grave is supposed to reply (on the recording): “That ol’ tree was the biggest I ever seen, etc.” In addition to these sorts of statements, I made an effort to provide audio cues for what was happening — what someone was doing, what stone we were examining — so that should any EVP be recorded, we would know what exactly it was in response to (which might help in interpreting any vague words or sounds spoken by the spirits).

As for other aspects of the investigation, by which I mean photography, I didn’t have any particular expectation of getting anything, especially since it was broad daylight. However, I knew I would need pictures to populate this website, and so I made sure to document points of interest as best I could.


Nathan, my mother Kim, and Missy examine a Myers tombstone.

And points of interest were in plentiful supply at Myers Cemetery. I’ve always enjoyed exploring cemeteries. I’ve seen cemeteries of greater historical interest than Myers. I’ve seen cemeteries with older stones. I’ve seen cemeteries with much more dramatic layouts (see the “Tomnahurich” sidebar). But I think I may have to give Myers the prize for sheer novelty in its markers. They had a certain ingenuousness that I haven’t quite seen anywhere else.

Tomnahurich Cemetery, Inverness

One of the most amazing graveyards I’ve ever been in was outside Inverness, in Scotland. It was Tomnahurich Cemetery, basically a big, round hill covered with and surrounded by a ring of graves. Fortunately I had the presence of mind to write a travel journal entry while I was there, so I don’t have to rehash my memory of the place now. I had taken the train up to Inverness from Oxford (where I was at a summer academic program) for the weekend. The day I wrote this, I had taken a tour of Loch Ness (as mentioned in the Preamble).

Saturday, July 31, 1999 – 4:24 p.m. GMT
A set of steps in Tomnahurich Cemetery, Inverness, the Highlands

We passed this cemetery going to and coming back from Loch Ness, a short distance outside the commercial section of town. I decided that I wanted to see it more intimately, and so I made the fifteen minute walk from the river to the cemetery, and I’m here now, on a set of steps which go up a hill terraced with graves.

The cemetery is huge. As first I was just impressed with the diversity of monuments and the garden-like way they were strewn about the rather narrow (70 yards, maybe – maybe more) band at the base of the hill. However, having started to walk around the place, I’ve found that that band appears to circle the entire hill. It may not do so entirely – I haven’t gone all the way ’round, yet – but it’s still huge. Probably larger than Elmwood in Memphis, and certainly holding more monuments.

And the monuments are quite large, generally, and one stone tends to cover several generations of family members. It’s distinctly different from the graveyards I’ve visited in the U.S. The graves are also placed up the side of the hill quite high in some places. It’s really kind of eerie to look up at some many tombs. There’s also a section on the hill, a row of monuments placed flush (indeed, slightly imbedded in) a thick-leaved hedgerow, with a very dark wood behind it. Totally impenetrable. I’d like to use this in a story sometime, with perhaps a child believing that the dark, concealed forest behind the monuments and hedge is the Land of the Dead itself. Hmm.

Well, I’d best be moving on before someone sets a stone up for me….


Some homemade markers for departed children in Myers Cemetery.

We began with the rather standard (in rural Tennessee) batch of homemade markers. These are rather common in this type of cemetery, and despite their often rather modern make (typically concrete clearly poured in a box) they remain very affecting and otherworldly. They seem more tragic, more emotional – much in the same way that the plaintive homemade memorials in a pet cemetery are far more chilling than anything in a regular graveyard (I have seen one genuine pet cemetery, done up to do Stephen King proud, and it is an experience that will haunt me for the rest of my life). Homemade stones are even more unnerving when, as at Myers Cemetery, they are for children.

But the professionally carved marble memorials yielded ever odder inscriptions. Missy found the stone of Irene C. Campbell and her husband Claude. Claude was a Sergeant in the Army Air Corps. Irene, the stone tells us, was an English War Bride. The stone displays the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes on crossed poles. I was reminded of old telephone directories which indicated the occupation of each person listed. I like to think that in the Bledsoe County phone book Irene C. Campbell had as her listed vocation, English War Bride.

These stones had personality – presumably personalities somewhat similar to those of the individuals underneath them. Bondy Campbell, “Accomplished Musician,” had a guitar carved into his headstone, along with what was presumably a lyric from a song as his epitaph (I regret I didn’t make a verbal note of this lyric on the recording so it could be looked up later – none of us recognized it, and it could even have been a Bondy Campbell original). In a back corner of the cemetery, Missy discovered a most unique stone. Like others, on one side it featured a pictorial carving of the achievements and/or pastimes of its memoriands. In this case, though, those were hunting and fishing (the father), cooking (the mother), and watching television (the son). There was much wonderment amongst the ghost-hunters. Alas, both the mother and son were still living, and as such could give us no electromagnetic reply to our questions about favorite recipes and TV programs.


Missy and Nathan stand stricken with shock and wonder.

Shortly after the discovery of this stone, a minivan pulled up into the gravel drive alongside the cemetery. Nathan quite conscientiously advised packing the recording equipment out of sight and making a discrete departure so that we could leave the honest mourners in peace. Seeing our van parked there, the perhaps not-so-honest mourners made a circle and left, but we felt it was best to get back on the road anyway. And thus we concluded our investigation of Myers Cemetery.

Once we were back on the highway, it was decided that we should listen to the tape recording we had just made, partly to see if we had the good fortune to have captured anything hugely and obviously supernatural, and also to make sure there weren’t any technical difficulties that we would need to correct in our next attempt.

As it turned out, there were some minor problems. The recorder had been carried by its retractable handle at Nathan’s side, resulting in both an occasional ear-wrenching clacking sound from the plastic handle and also at a couple of points extraneous corduroy-on-corduroy noise from Nathan’s pants. It was determined that next time we would hold the recorder in our hands by its casing and at a slight distance from the body.

We also heard our first EVP. Shortly after my own loud exclamation of “A lot of pretty young people here,” there was a hissing, otherworldly reply, which on listening to it a third time sounded very much like “The stones… the stones.” There were audible shrieks in the car, and, again, much wonderment. We finished out the tape on the edges of our seats, thoroughly buzzed. Unfortunately, I pulled out the minidisc recording, and as we listened to it, it was clear that the mystery voice on the tape was actually Nathan, softly saying “Well, that’s the headstone and that’s the footstone.” This was a major blow to morale, but it was very useful in the long run for demonstrating how easy it is to make mistaken IDs when using tapes.

Listening back on the tape now, I’m amazed that we thought we could hear anything at all, especially in the van, with all its road noise. The tape hiss is strong, and a good deal of everything said is rather indistinct if the person isn’t within a few feet of the recorder. The others tend to drift in and out — in a rather otherworldly fashion, I might add. There are some odd sounds on the tape, though, which I’ll analyze more fully at the end of this report. However, even Nathan’s line, which startled us in the car, is not mysterious when heard through headphones — you can recognize him fairly easily. Our surprise was instructive, though. Nathan hadn’t remembered saying anything after me, and not in as whispered a voice as he used. Were the recording on the tape slightly worse, it would be very easy for us to think it was evidence of ghostly activity. It does, in fact, sound rather like some of the better EVPs out there. But more on evaluating EVPs at the end of this piece. Now, on to Natchez Trace State Park.

Greener Cemetery [Transcript]


A multi-second exposure (my flash failed to deploy) of the roadsign for Greener Cemetery.

It was approaching five o’clock when we reached the exit off of I-40 that runs directly into Natchez Trace State Park. The sun was definitely sinking below the treeline, and my fellow novice ghost-hunters and myself hadn’t bargained on actually having to conduct one of these things in the dark. Rather like the final chase scene in Copolla’s film of Dracula, we felt like we were racing along the roads trying to beat the sun before some terror came out of the dark.

As it was, it was quite dark once we got into the forest, and morale was shaky. However, my mother is not to be daunted by anything, I was quite keen on getting at least one more recording in, and Nathan and Missy seemed game enough, so we stopped at the first cemetery sign we came to. It said “Greener Cemetery,” with another sign next to it announcing “Licensed Vehicles Only.” Nathan, Missy, and I were quite sure that when we had been here previously there had been no such frighteningly authoritative signs posted on the cemetery roads — we had driven down a fair number of them (or at least the ones that seemed passable in the van, as they are nothing but red clay and gravel). After some discussion on what “licensed” meant (did it mean only vehicles for which you have a license — like our van — thereby prohibiting four wheelers and other recreational offroaders, for example?), we decided that we wouldn’t be taking very long anyway and drove the unexpectedly short distance up to the cemetery.


Our headlights shine up the approach to the rail fence around Greener Cem.

It was only maybe fifty yards up the gravel road, and when we got out of the van you could still hear the occasional bit of traffic on the road behind us. The cemetery was tucked up in the forest, though, mostly pines. It was rather plainly demarcated by a low railing, inside of which were a couple dozen small, rough markers. Some were homemade, others carved from marble and granite, but none had the shiny, modern quality of the sort of markers we found at Myers Cemetery. It was also more clearly a family plot than Myers had been, as its small size would indicate. And yet it did feel peaceful, despite the darkness and shadow and hiss of trucks passing on the road behind us. It didn’t feel threatening or ominous at all.

However, there wasn’t quite as much to comment on as there had been at Myers. The stones were older and harder to read, but none were particularly odd in and of themselves. The one enigma we encountered was a row of low, brick-like stones at the back of the cemetery – very much like standard footstones, except they weren’t paired up with headstones, as near as we could tell, nor were they marked in any decipherable way. Thinking on it now, they may have been an old boundary line for the cemetery, before the wooden railing was put up, or maybe they did simply mark very old graves, or graves which had wooden headmarkers originally.

The camera captures a small light in the distance here, which I do not recall seeing in person. However, it looks like it may well be a tungsten bulb on a park building or possibly a reflector along the highway, seen through the trees.

 

With less to distract us, we were a bit more focused in our recording efforts. It was rather noisy walking around, due to fallen leaves spread all over the ground, and we spent a good deal of time standing quietly still, letting the microphones pick up the noise of crickets and frogs up in the trees. About ten minutes into our investigation, my mother heard some noise off in the trees, which she described as a human-sounding call. There wasn’t any reason to suspect supernatural activity, since a lot of hunting and camping goes on in Natchez Trace. However, the prospect of being accidentally shot by a hunter was an unsettling thought — moreso than encountering an apparition. We spent some more time taking recordings of dead air (ha ha) in front of a couple of tombstones of interest, and then we moved on.

 

Mt. Comfort Cemetery [Transcript]


An out-of-focus shot taken from inside the van before we decided to explore Mt. Comfort.

We didn’t expect to investigate Mt. Comfort Cemetery. A few weeks earlier, my parents and I had driven up to Murfreesboro, TN, to watch my brother perform in a marching band competition. On our drive back we had stopped in Natchez Trace to try to hunt down a particular cemetery that we had visited a few times when I was a child. I had tried to find it when I had been to the park with Nathan and Missy previously, without luck, and so my parents decided that they would take a stab at it.

What was notable about this elusive cemetery was that it had a most unusual monument in it. On one of the graves someone had built a long, low house, rather like a abbreviated wooden version of a New Orleans raised grave. Handwritten on the house was an very strange and unsettling epitaph, which unfortunately none of us who had seen it can quite remember — it was something along the lines of “He that loved her, he that lost her, he that followed her…” and more, with some sort vague implication of either murder or violent death or just something generally eerie. It was very gothic rural America, and we loved it. However, now that we wanted to show it to other people we could not find it anywhere — nor could we find the cemetery where we had once conducted rubbings with the park ranger, which had also had some particularly old stones.

The Interstate Highway divides the park roughly in half, with one side developed, featuring the campground and inn and lake and trails and such. The half on the other side is somewhat less developed and less visited. It has a loop of roads that run through it and a number of private buildings — some old homes and at least two churches (Shiloh and Mt. Comfort). It also has a clearing in which are the remains of what was North America’s oldest living pecan tree. Sadly, the tree is now deceased, though its remains are still impressive. But there is something desolate about this side of the park, and it was this side that we believed the old cemetery to be in.

I myself had thought it was at the Shiloh churchyard — this was not the case. While circling through the rest of that section of the park on its narrow, uneven roads, we came across Mt. Comfort Church, which also had a graveyard across the road from it. This appeared to be the graveyard from our collective memory, but there was no sign of the little house. Admittedly, it was already in rather poor condition when we had seen it, and it is quite likely that it had collapsed and been replaced since then. There was, however, another odd marker (odd at least for this part of the country) – it was a cenotaph (from the Greek kenotaphion, an empty tomb) which traced the genealogy of a pioneer family for several generations.

Even though it was basically nighttime when we left Greener Cemetery, my mother wanted to check out Mt. Comfort again, and so we crossed the interstate and wound our way through the forest until we reached the church and its graveyard.

The place was dark and deserted, despite being Sunday evening. At first we just drove around the edge of the cemetery, rolling our windows down and looking at it, making sure the little house was no where to be seen. Then we came to the cenotaph (which happened to be at the edge of the grounds), and, despite some trepidation, decided to get out and conduct one more short investigation.


Missy examines the Mt. Comfort cenotaph, while Kim ventures off into the dark.

Mt. Comfort was a fairly large cemetery, at least as big as Myers, perhaps larger, and certainly with a greater variety in its population. What I noticed most about the cemetery while we were there was just how dark it was. It had few trees on the grounds, but was on a slight hill, which made it hard to see very far beyond the row of stones ahead of you. You got the sense of being in a large, dark, open space, but not being able to get a good sense of what was around you. It gave me a very vulnerable feeling. It was not at all peaceful in the way that Greener had been. This cemetery definitely had some vibes — an edge to it.

And yet I was braver than I would have thought myself. We spotted a strange light, evidently a reflection, off in the distance, and I felt quite comfortable trekking after it to find its source. It wasn’t a ghost, of course, as we knew at the time. Rather, it was apparently the reflection of moonlight and possibly our distant headlights on the highly polished tops of some of the stones. But since many of the stones were polished, one got the sense of the light moving as you moved, and for a short while it was quite mysterious and exciting. I also ran out of film quite early at Mt. Comfort, which is a shame, because it did feel like the most haunted location of the three. Of course, with the reflective stones, anything we caught on film would be suspect from the start.


What’s this? A ghostly television set captured on film? Well, given what we saw at Myers Cemetery, maybe. More likely this is the camera flash capturing the same “shiny tombstone effect” that we had seen the moonlight doing.

We didn’t stay at Mt. Comfort very long. Just long enough to get a few minutes recorded and to make us thoroughly nervous. And I have to say, as I was getting back into the car at Mt. Comfort, I had that same sensation of hands just behind my back as I do at the Rhodes College Library.

Audio Analysis

Well, there’s voices in the night trying to be heard
I’m sitting here listening to every mind polluting word

–Bob Dylan, “Million Miles

Having listened to the tape and minidisc recordings several times now, I am sorry to report that have I found practically no evidence of supernatural audio activity. But that’s not to say that there aren’t a few odd incidents here and there.

First, though, general thoughts on the recordings. As for quality, the minidisc wins, hands down. It would have benefited greatly from a better microphone — the clip-on mic I used did an excellent job of picking up me and all the ungodly breathing sounds I made as I tromped around the various graveyards. It also picked up the other people, even when they were rather far away, although at a very low volume. However, most of what they said could still be understood, provided I wasn’t talking over them and drowning them out. On the tape, tape hiss covers up the low volume recordings. Of course, the positive side of this is that it also provides a nice medium of white noise in which one can hear just about any ghostly message one wants, if you squint your ears hard enough.

Let’s look at what we did capture, though. You may need to use headphones to best hear everything spoken — some of it is quite faint. These sounds are presented as MP3 files, and you will need an MP3 player to hear them.

Myers Cemetery

  1. Introduction to Myers Cemetery: [Minidisc] I introduce Myers Cemetery and demonstrate that I am more familiar with a particular sausage company than Eastern Tennessee clans and how they spell their surname.
  2. “Headstones”: This is the bit that scared us when we heard it in the van. If you have very poor speakers or are in a car, perhaps it will sound creepy to you, too. Through headphones, though, this is quite clearly Nathan speaking. [The Tape Version] On minidisc, there is no doubt. [The Minidisc Version]
  3. Sarah Whittenburg: Here is an example of another potential false I.D. When I listened to this tape, I thought I could hear a very faint voice saying something that sounded like dates right after my mother finishes speaking. In this sample, my mother says “Sarah Whittenburg, 1888-1902,” and right after “Whittenburg” you can hear the mysterious speech. Then Missy says “Oh, she was just one,” presumably referring to another stone near Sarah’s. [The Tape Version] This was momentarily exciting, but then I compared it to the minidisc recording, and made a rueful discovery. [The Minidisc Version] Yes, it’s just me, reading a stone to myself, quite loudly for the clip-on mic, but ghostly on the tape recording.
  4. Precious Memories: Here is yet another potential false I.D. At least, I’m pretty sure it’s false. Here we hear my mother say “And his hairstyle… that’s about 1979.” Then there is a long pause. Then she says “I like this cemetery.” In that pause, though, you can clearly discern the whispered words “Precious Memories,” on both the tape and minidisc recording. [The Tape] [The Minidisc]. Then it sounds like these words are repeated, but much more softly. The voice sounds like Nathan’s, and he is prone to whispering (not a good habit in an EVP investigation, it seems). Given the reference to “Memory Lane” a bit later in the recording, I think “Precious Memories” was inscribed on the marker. Why he would say it twice I don’t know. That’s the only thing that gives me a moment’s pause.
  5. The Interlopers: Here is the end of the Myers minidisc recording, when we see someone driving up to the cemetery. [Minidisc]

Greener Cemetery

  1. Introduction to Greener Cemetery: [Minidisc]
  2. The Noise: Here is a possibly anomalous noise, recorded on tape while Missy was holding the recorder up to a stone. Though she hasn’t admitted to it, I’m 99% sure this noise is coming from Missy herself. It sounds like her. [The Tape] It totally fails to show up on the minidisc version of the same long silence. [Minidisc] For a bit of context, I’ve extended the minidisc sample a few seconds to include me speaking at normal volume.
  3. The Noise, Again: Okay, now I’m beginning to think Missy’s doing it on purpose. One time I can attribute to accidental funny breathing. A noise like this, and I suspect someone is trying to ruin the evidentiary value of our recordings! [Tape] Again, nothing showed up on the minidisc.
  4. The Yelping: Okay, this doesn’t sound like any human ghost, but I don’t know what it is. It only seems to show up on the minidisc. Nathan and I are looking at a tombstone. He says “Can you see any markings?” I crouch down and take a picture of the stone. You can clearly hear the camera motor as the lens focuses, then a beep indicating that focus has been achieved, then the shutter goes off. Then I stand up and say, “Oh, there’s the moon.” However, right before the first sound of the camera motor, about 8 seconds into the sample here, you can hear what sounds like a sea lion in distress. [The Yelp, in context] I have no clue what this sound is. There’s some chance that it is coming from the camera, I guess, although the sound of me focusing and taking pictures is all over these recordings, and never does the camera motor make a noise even remotely similar to this. [The Yelp, with background noise digitally filtered] On the tape version, you can’t really even hear the camera noise, much less any yelps. [The Tape] This may be the only remotely genuine EVP sample we got, and if this is the best we can do, then that’s not saying very much for EVP.
  5. Did You Hear That?: My mother hears something, but the recording equipment doesn’t seem to capture it. [Minidisc]
  6. Greener Cemetery Whispers: Here you can hear me take a picture (notice the lack of yelping) and then begin to walk through the leaves. Maybe it’s just me, but somewhere in that leaf-walking sound (at about the 7 seconds mark), there is a moment that sounds like a whispered syllable or two. The best description I can come up with is the sound “Chas.” A name? [The Whisper in Context] Most likely this is just a trick of the leaves, or possibly the clip-on mic picking up a particularly peculiar intake of breath on my part, but this is somewhat similar to other vague EVPs I’ve seen posted online. [The Whisper digitally enhanced]


Missy records at Greener Cemetery. She’s probably forging EVPs at this very moment!!!

Mt. Comfort Cemetery

  1. Introduction to Mt. Comfort: Yes, it got quite dark on us quite quickly. [Minidisc]
  2. “Do you hear something?”: This sums up our recording experiences. [Minidisc]
  3. “Hey, is that not creepy?”: This sums up our investigations in general, with an emphasis on the “not.” [Minidisc]
  4. The Library: Here, Missy points out a contradiction in my character. [Minidisc]

In light of these samples, my thoughts on EVP are not especially favorable. I’m not upset because we didn’t capture any ghostly voices — I can’t say I really expected that we would on our first time out (although I did have hopes). Rather, I’m disturbed at just how easily we could have fooled ourselves into thinking we had recorded ghostly voices. Admittedly, we don’t have that many samples that couldn’t have been ruled out after some careful thought. But we came close — if the recording quality on some of the tape samples had been just slightly worse, we would have some very mysterious whispers indeed. And they would not have merely been overly optimistic interpretations of static; they would be actual voices that we simply had forgotten were our own.

As such, my advice for anyone out there who wants to responsibly collect EVP samples is to make sure you have at least two separate recordings. Indeed, it would be ideal if every investigator had their own individual microphone, so that every sound could be cross checked with the other recordings. Also, use quality microphones. If you’re going to use tape (which might be a requirement, if you believe the magnetic theories), then good microphones are a must. I would also advocate using a digital recorder if you happen to have access to one. Recording events in a camcorder, too, would be extremely useful.

If, on the other hand, you just want to collect as many EVPs as possible, then take a single, old tape recorder with a built-in mic, bring along several soft-spoken friends, and go somewhere with a lot of leaves on the ground.

The leaf-factor is the other thing which has shaken my already sketchy faith in EVP collection. I noticed that a number of the whispery sounds I thought I had collected only cropped up while I (or someone else) was walking around. There are several long sections of good quality investigator silence. There is no sign of supernatural voices at any of these points. But once someone starts moving, there are the faint whispers. It doesn’t take much of a leap to conclude that the whispers are, in fact, created by the tramping of feet on dead grass and leaves. The dead leaves only added to the crunchy white noise already provided by tape hiss.

You may be familiar with the phenomenon of pareidolia, in which a person presented with a natural formation or random assembly sees familiar images in it, typically faces. This is what is responsible for the Man in the Moon, the Old Man of the Mountain, the Face on Mars, among other things. The same thing applies to sounds – listening to random static, we think we can decipher voices, especially if we’re expecting them. Real EVP enthusiasts deny that genuine EVP samples could be mistaken for static, and actively warn against making false positives. However, out of the actual available samples posted on the internet, I tend to hear a lot of things that sound rather like the Greener Cemetery Whisper, posted above. There are lots of samples in which you hear nothing until you listen to it three or four times or are prompted as for what to listen for. In these cases, I think Occam’s Razor eliminates supernatural communication pretty clearly.

I’m not going to dismiss EVP entirely. I do still believe in ghosts, and why shouldn’t there be a way to capture their effect on the physical world, be it through sound or light? However, if there are any genuine EVP samples out there, I think they are few and far between. I don’t believe that anyone and his or her friends can just march out to a cemetery with a tape recorder and capture the voices of ghosts. The people who do this seem to be the ones posting the most suspect samples on the web. Again, I don’t want to rob them of their good time out, but come on, people, a little rigorousness is good for your character. Not that the Rats Alley team was a paragon of scientific exactitude, but nonetheless….

–Patrick Lane