Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Around a week or so ago, the usual group was wandering Camarillo. In addition to the thrill of knowing that we could be arrested for our exploratory activities, there was a new twist on the evening: Unit 44, along with others whose numbers escape me, was wide open: the Children's Ward.
It was terribly creepy. The murals were garish, out of place, oddly bright and happy for such a sad and frightening place. Marylin Monroe poses for all eternity next to Michael Jackson, the (alleged) pedophile; monkeys swing from cartoon trees above Ricardo Montalban and the the little guy that used to say, "The plane, Boss, the plane!"; then, of course, there was Satchmo, Diana Ross, Alfred Hitchcock, staggered down the hallway in out of proportion oddness, inviting visitors and inmates to endless contemplation of a popular culture that some of us recognize, and others have no reference for at all. How many children have seen an episode of "Fantasy Island"? Is that what Ward 44 pretends to be, a fantasy for sick and incarcerated children? There is no relation among the bizarre murals adorning the long, sterile hallway. These are just random images signifying nothing to no one: an apt metaphor for madness and illness. Mental illness is something like memories out of context; it's all there, the pictures of one's life that are inextricably linked to television and movies, so much so that one bleeds into the other, yet there is no narrative, no story, no language to organize or connect them.
I freely admit that I do not know what I am doing wandering through this history of abuse and despair, this building redolent of hot fungus and medicinal fluids seeping through filthy carpet. That one night, every door was open to us, an invitation: come in, see what you feel here. So we entered every room, every corridor, every wing, every unit. I was feeling brave, intrepid, daring; until the last room facing the north parking lot. It was dark, of course, but it was more than that: it was alive. The chief ghost hunter said it first: "There's a lot of activity in this room"; and so there was. I don't know what to call it, that feeling of dread, the state of being watched, the sense that something is happening all around you that you cannot see but only feel. All I do know is the result: I was instantly exhausted, drained of all energy, all light, all optimism. I sat on the floor with my head in my hands while the others conducted an EVP session. My legs felt weak and vertigo toyed with my head. Every instinct told me to leave that room as soon as possible. If I did not, it was only due to a super human effort to not appear the coward in front of people who never, ever ran away from ghosts . . . because we are all playing with death, if we were to be honest. We are hoping to contact someone who has "crossed over", who has seen what none of us have, what we all fear. Of course, our biggest fear is that after death there are no voices, no contact, no spirit energy, no paranormal communications, just silence. Just annihilation.
One of our ghost hunters died last Saturday. He couldn't breathe. He emptied his asthma inhaler and it didn't help. He suffocated. That is the death that most terrifies me, a fellow asthma sufferer. His death brought the possibility of my own to the forefront of my thoughts. Mostly, though, I think of his mother who lost her other son less than two years ago. Oddly, he died the same way: suffocated in his bed. All of this seems unreal, surreal, the stuff of novels and horror stories. There is no way to imagine what bizarre reality his mother is stumbling through as I write this.
He was a big kid with huge, warm hands. He loved taking pictures with odd flashes and streaks of light, thinking that he had captured evidence of the paranormal. He loved ghost hunting with all his heart. He seemed, outside of ghost hunting, lost in the world. He was happy tromping around graveyards, missions, and the Queen Mary; it gave him a mission, a purpose. I did not know him well. What I was able to see was his childlike sweetness and passion for all things paranormal. He was genuine and sincere in his enthusiasm; he made Ty and me want to take care of him, to encourage him, to nurture that innocence that he was destined to lose.
Now, of course, I have no idea where he is. His mother is probably frantic to find him, as she was with her first son. I would love to offer up some platitudes regarding his new life after death, but I have nothing to offer. There is nothing to say. In all of our many hours recording random noises that we sometimes construe to be voices of the dead, in all of our thousands of pictures that appear to show something, in our endless videos and constant attempts to reach over the edge of this life and into another one, we have no answers whatsoever.
If there is another life, we have no clue what it looks or feels like. If there is some existence after death, we are no closer now than we ever were to understanding or describing it. Anything that I said regarding the continuance of the human spirit is based on some odd audio clips, some bizarre sensations and some strange photographs. Hardly the basis to alleviate the crushing grief of losing one's son; one's last son.
There is a certain cold emptiness and weariness in the ghost hunt; we often feel that there is something there, and sometimes we can offer evidence for it, but we don't know what "it" is. We have nothing to give those who need answers. In the darkness of Camarillo, I wonder if the search might not be dangerous. If we find answers, perhaps they are not the ones his mother needs to hear. Perhaps they are not meant to be discovered at all, and every time we tempt the spirits in the corners of hospital rooms we are, in fact, giving up just a little of our souls.
I know one thing. At least that mother's kind son is not to be found in Camarillo. Wherever he is, I know there is more light for him than there was for the children staring at the lost and impossible world of Fantasy Island.