Rolling Hills is an enormous building in western New York that has been, at one time or another since 1827, all of these things: poorhouse, insane asylum, orphanage and nursing home. Historical records show that over 1,000 people have died there.
There are probably better places in the world to search for ghosts, but I can’t think of one so close to home.
I had the opportunity to search for spirits in this monstrosity recently. Accompanying me were forty other ghost-hunting zealots, along with Steve Gonsalves and Lisa Dowaliby, of Ghost Hunter (Sci-Fi channel) fame. With cameras, voice recorders and mini X-file-like flash lights in-hand; we crept through the dusty, dark wings of the building, acutely aware of every sound, every light anomaly, every prickle of nausea in our gut.
The building is fantastic in that, I certainly would not have wanted to sit there alone, fanny on the floor, knees up to my chest as I scan the corridor for shadows leaping between rooms. No, even my sister and I could not handle it well when we discovered we had been left behind by our group. The paint-peeled walls suddenly felt much closer, much colder – and the rooms and areas beyond our flashlight beams filled with a living darkness we weren’t prepared to encounter. How silly we felt when we discovered that we hadn’t been left for dead after all, the group had just gone down the hall through a zigzag of rooms. But still, we insisted to each other – why had it been so quiet? Why had we not heard anything at all? It felt then like we had dove into something much more disturbing than we had prepared for.
The first night of our visit, the winds gusted to over 50 miles an hour. This shook the windows on the third floor and allowed the night’s cold to snake through the building and attack us through our coats. The wind, we presumed, was to blame for a very slight snick-snick sound coming from a locked door. Jen and I stood there patiently (as ghost hunters are supposed to do) for the snick-snick to occur – and it did, at least a dozen times.
“It’s the wind,” Jen said, and although it did not happen in conjunction with the wind, but seemingly more random, we agreed to move on. We each took a step when we heard a muffled slap against the other side of the wooden door.
“That… could have been the wind,” we offered, but seemed more unlikely.
We caught the attention of others and before we knew it, a crowd of at least 20 people was circled around this locked snick-snicking door.
“Can you try to turn the doorknob again,” said a man, who seemed very much in touch with his spiritual side. Patience… patience… everyone leering at the now flashlight-illuminated doorknob, waiting for it to turn… “Can you turn the doorknob again for us…” the man repeated… and again, more patience… someone coughing… people shifting their weight from one leg to another…
“Can you JIGGLE the doorknob again for us, please !” The man’s face now inches from the doorknob, the circle of people closing in…
Hmm… when had it turned from a harmless snick-snicking, to a jiggle?
Jen and I slipped out of the circle. We watched from twenty feet away as this man continued his verbal assault on the locked doorknob.
We couldn’t help but to laugh. Softly, of course. Sure, laughing was probably not in the ghost-hunting rulebook. But at the time, the disturbance seemed much more environmentally driven, then something from the spirit world.
Later, a group of people sat crouched and waiting at the far end of the second floor hallway. Jen and I didn’t want to disturb them, so we stood at the other end, staring into the unending blackness of an open room. Little did we know that at that same time, the folks at the other end of the hallway were experiencing something (apparently) quite remarkable. One of them had been attempting to provoke a ghost, and after five minutes of this provocation, the swinging double doors flew open, as if someone very angry had pushed them.
We heard bits and pieces of this after we’d filtered back down to the meeting room. Someone’s dowsing rods had been ripped from her hands, patchy communications about what happened with the double doors (swinging open) were caught here and there, but to Jen and me, they didn’t make any sense.
She and I had been standing about 100 feet away. With nothing in between, we were certain we would have heard something from the other end when this ghostly anomaly took place – a collective gasp, perhaps? Folks frightened enough to get up and walk the other way? Nervous, shrilly laughter at the idea that they had pissed off a ghost? Or maybe, perhaps, seeing the double doors swing open abruptly? We’d heard nothing.
The next night, near the end of the hunt, Jen spotted a darting shadow in one of the basement corridors.
“Oh my god!” she yelled, surprise, enthusiasm and questionable terror in her voice. “I just saw a shadow! I swear to god, I just saw it! It went up that way!”
Flashlights fumbled quickly on, tiny beams of light criss-crossing until meeting up on… there it was… right on the steps!
A cat. And no, it wasn’t even black. A harmless cat that, if its fancy had taken it up the stairs before we could find it sitting there, would have probably manifested to ghostly, possibly demonic proportions within our minds.
After a mixture of relief and disappointment, it occurred to me that possibly, at any time, any of these shadows could be “just” cats. Could be mice. Could be… an errant bat or bird. When the hallways are black as night with just the right amount of moonlight and post light shining through the windows, even shadows might just be… shadows.
With nearly half the population believing in ghosts, one out of every two of us is already halfway to believing we’ve seen one. Throw in the darkness, the eeriness of an old building, the belief in your own heightened ability and sensitivity toward the supernatural, and you’re all but playing Scrabble with beings or entities that may or may not even exist.
It has been suggested that the very existence of ghosts is absurd. If ghosts are borne from unnatural deaths, wouldn’t there then, be millions of ghosts walking among us at any given time? Wouldn’t there then be some definite, accurate proof of their existence?
Another theory suggests that these “ghosts” are really demons in disguise. That ghosts, (defined as dead humans who have not yet entered their next phase, but are in a sort of “limbo”) do not exist at all. What do exist (in this theory) are the demons who manifest themselves as ghosts in an attempt to get close to the live human subjects.
Believing in ghosts is more a human desire than anything – the hope that death is not a finale, but a transition, a bridge to something greater than ourselves. We simply don’t want the dream to end.
In my somewhat lighthearted, juvenile, brief quest for ghosts in this building, I came to the realization that the world is filled with ideas, hopes, stories, eye-witness accounts, etc., regarding the supernatural, but none of these, none of these should matter when it comes to deciding for yourself. Until you’ve seen an apparition with your own eyes, until you can say with 100% without-a-doubt certainty, and have eliminated all other possibilities for explanations, should you accept anything as proof of ghosts. Nothing you hear or see on television, nothing you hear or see from other amateurs like yourself, or even professionals, should be flat out accepted as fact. Skepticism is not only healthy; it weeds out 99% of the crap.
The next time I go ghost hunting, if that time does indeed come, my approach will be slightly different. As a creative person I like to believe I am open to the “vibes” of other realms, but the skeptical side of me will see things for what they are. Cats – not shadow-people. Wind – not trapped ghosts. And I will not give in, to what boils down to, the mass hysteria one can create when the slightest anomaly gives us reason to hope, to believe in something beyond what we already know.