Friday, January 04, 2013

Darkness Abides: A Tour of Haunted Structures

By Scott Corrales

Haunted houses run the gamut from Great Britain's Borley Rectory, studied in the early days of paranormal research by the legendary Harry Price, to lesser known places like Madrid's Palacio de Linares. However, there are thousands of others that occupy the vast middle ground in between. The ones examined in this article belong in this category.

Mexico's rich and varied paranormal history (see "Ghosts of Old Mexico" in the February 2000 issue of FATE) includes places in which the shadows of the past still exert an uncomfortable grip on the present. One of these places is the city of Morelia in the state of Michoacán.

In 1984, a group of high-school students who had embarked upon a photographic tour of the Morelia's colonial past made a startling discovery: a photo taken in the City Library's stacks revealed--upon developing--an eerie silhouette projected on the neat rows of books. At first the students thought it was a trick of the light, or a prank played by a member of their group. But when Library employees were shown the image, they were able to identify it all too well as the outline of a "nun in blue" which has haunted the repository of knowledge for untold generations. Many of the City Library's holdings, it is said, once belonged to one of Morelia's convents.

Nor is identifying the deceased religious woman an easy task: Morelia's library is housed in an ancient stone building that dates back to the 16th century. Burials took place in the structure's floors and walls, and even the librarian's desk is located on top a slab covering an early 20th century burial.

"When I leave the building," stated library director Rigoberto Cornejo in an interview to the El Norte newspaper, "I feel the sensation of someone following me. In fact, I can even hear the footsteps." Although this sober-minded professional refuses to believe in the supernatural, he is hard pressed to find logical explanations for his experiences, or for those of his subordinates.

In 1996, library worker Socorro Ledezma requested a transfer from her work area in the colonial structure after an uncanny experience. "The time must have been seven o'clock in the evening," she told reporters from El Norte, "and it was getting dark outside...that's when I suddenly felt the presence of someone standing behind me, blowing in my ear. I was unable to turn around, and my body was gripped by a chill."

The haunted Mexican convent has a counterpart across the Atlantic: the ancient convent of the Arrecogidas (cloistered sisters) in Madrid, located at 86-88 Calle Hortaleza, has steadily gained the reputation of being a haunted location ever since the labor union known as U.G.T. (Union General de Trabajadores) established its headquarters at said location. A number of union leaders who remained into the wee hours of the night hammering out collective bargaining agreements claim felt cold chills upon hearing strange voices, murmurs and the sounds of doors opening and closing all by themselves.

One of the more remarkable agreements involved the office of Antón Saracibar, one of the labor union's former directors. Every morning, his staff would arrive at work to find hand prints on the leather sofas and sunken areas suggesting someone had been sitting in them overnight--despite the fact that the executive office was carefully locked every evening. The incidents caused no-nonsense labor officials to request the aid of prominent parapsychologists.

Historical background checks soon attested to the building's tormented past. Centuries ago, the nuns had turned their fortress-like building into a home for "wayward girls and fallen women," toward whom they behaved more like jailers than helpers. The building's popularity as a place of torment was such that the renown filmmaker Pedro Almodovar used it as the scene for one of his projects, Entre Sombras ("Among Shadows").

The hauntings appear to be circumscribed to the former convent's lower floor, where the cemetery used to bury deceased nuns was located. When the U.G.T took over the building as its main office, the convent's chapel was turned into the main room in which press conferences were to be held, and the choir area became the office of another union executive. Serious consideration was given to the removal of mortal remains from niches in the crypt to make way for computer servers, but wiser heads prevailed and a door was built to bar access to the old convent's lower levels.

Have efforts been made to contact the deceased occupants of these old structures, ridden with memories? The answer to this question is apparently affirmative. In 1995, Father José María Pilón of the Society of Jesus delivered "The Ata Report" on the subject to the board of governors of the Reina Sofía Museum of Art in Madrid, which had formerly been the San Carlos Hospital. The controversial aspect of Father Pilón's effort was that contact had allegedly been made through a Ouija board.

According to Sebastián Rodríguez Galindo's report on the subject in April 1996 issue of Mundo Paranormal, a team of paranormal experts composed of Sol Blanco Soler, Paloma Navarrete, Jose Luis Ramos, Piedad Acevedo, Lorenzo Plaza an Jaime de Alvear, looked into the "psychic presences" in the former hospital, which were allegedly responsible for activating elevators that had been shut down, opening locked doors, and perhaps more chillingly, "processions of entities wearing religious garb moving down the hallways." The majority of the witnesses in these cases were members of the buildings custodial and security staff.

Among the entities contacted by means of the Ouija board were "Malé", a Jewish woman who had lived at the site in 1594; "Aldonza de los Angeles", who claimed having been the prioress of the building's religious community in 1750, and last but not least "Ataulfo" or "Ata" (who gave the report its name): a dangerous, psychopathic patient of the hospital who confessed to having committed five murders while alive.

The Watchman's Story

In 1995, a night watchman known only by the initials "M.A.P." was on duty at the RENFE (Spain's national railway) station in the town of La Cañada in the province of Avila where the events took place. The 25 year-old watchman was accompanied in his rounds by his dog Yeny, who began to issue pitiful howls shortly after ten o'clock on February 8th. Fearing that vandals were on the premises, the watchman left his shack only to find his dog running toward him for protection. When he looked toward the right, he was further amazed to see a slight young woman dressed in white, with long black hair, advancing slowly along the platform. Although her face was covered by a thin veil, "M.A.P." would later tell researcher Carmen María Porter that the woman in white was "quite a looker."

But his enjoyment of her unearthly beauty came to a sudden end when he realized the figure stood some fifty centimeters above the surface, while drawing symbols on the ground with what appeared to be some sort of cane or staff.

Gripped by fear, the watchman abandoned his post and ran to a nearby bar, where patrons were startled by his sudden entry and the deathly pallor on his features. After drinking some soothing tea, the watchman was able to explain what happened and was escorted back to La Cañada Station by the bar's owner and some patrons. The enigmatic figure was long gone, but the symbols she had drawn were there for all to see.

Witnesses said that the letters S,T,N,D and L , plus the word "BEL" had been placed within a double circle containing a Star of David. Renown paranormal expert Juan García Atienza noted that the symbol found at La Cañada was "a magic circle designed for protection against evil."

Many of the townspeople refused to believe that a mere ghost had drawn the strange sigil, and word soon spread that "Our Lady of La Cañada" had appeared to affirm her protection of the community and the railway platform soon became a minor place of pilgrimage.

Mansions of Darkness

The abandoned house at Calle Aramberri 1026 received national attention when a Monterrey, Mexico newspaper ran an article about it, citing the strange screams, supernatural manifestations and other unusual events surrounding it. It wasn't long before the structure became a minor tourist attraction--grownups would photograph it during the daylight hours and raucous gangs of teenagers would break into it at night, hoping for a chance encounter with the ghost that has supposedly haunted it since the 1930's

"We went in last night and let me tell you, when we noticed one of the windows in the back, we saw a woman's face, a woman dressed in white, who appeared and disappeared," explains one of the nightly visitors interviewed by the newspaper.

A murder took place within the house in 1933, when a woman and her daughter were brutally slain one evening by her husband. The story goes that it was the family parrot who gave away the culprit: so terrible had been the screams that night that the words had become imprinted in the animal's brain: The bird shrieked "Don't kill me, Gabriel, don't kill me!" and this evidence was deemed sufficient to arrest the murderer.

The house, built in the early 1900's, has remained empty ever since that tragic night out of a fear that a "curse" weighs heavily on the structure.

Ricardo Zavala told reporters that when he learned of the haunted house's existence, he decided to come from a remote part of the state of Nuevo Leon to share in the mystery. He added that the evening he chose to visit had been particularly eerie, since when a group of youngsters went in, one of the last windowpanes that remained whole shattered without any apparent cause.

The newspaper story added that groups of four to five people have entered the house at different times to pray for the wandering souls to rest, or else to invoke them and ask them to disclose the reason for their remaining in this world...

As compelling as the story surrounding the Monterrey house may be, few accounts involving haunted edifices can compare to the one described by French paranormal author Robert Touquet in his book Le Bilan du Surnaturel ("Inventory of the Supernatural" ). Even if the case involving the occupants of the grand old structure known only as Le Prieuré --The Priory-- should ever be proven to be a hoax, it would nevertheless rank among the finest Gothic stories ever put on paper.

On July 6, 1955, a wealthy French matron known only as "Madame V." moved into the magnificent 17th century monastery which had once housed a nameless religious order. The French Revolution had expelled the monks and turned the building over to private hands. Madame V. and her two sons, Jean, 20 and Gaston, 30, were more than delighted to live in the huge, rambling structure. But Madame V.'s enjoyment of her new property was to be short-lived: on July 10th, while sleeping in the sprawling chamber that had once been the Prior's room, she woke up to see "a thin shadow formed of opaque fog, behind which there seemed to be a light." As her eyes adjusted, she saw that the human figure wore long robes and its head was covered by a cowl. Frozen in terror and unable to scream, there was little she could do as the figure progressed to the room's fireplace and knelt before it three times, its shadowy hands clenched in a prayerful manner. The hooded figure rose and vanished into another room, from which the terrified woman heard the sound of a body falling on the tiled floor.

Daybreak could not come fast enough, and in the warm summer morning, Madame V. wondered if she had been the victim of some kind of delusion or nightmare. Her sleep was troubled some weeks later by a repetition of the same scene, and she cursed her inability to overcome the overwhelming fear that kept her from taking any action. Having grown up with the stereotypical concept of ghosts--a skeleton covered by a sheet--she could not believe that the shadowy figure could be anything other than an elderly monk doing his devotions.

But things changed dramatically during the third nocturnal encounter: the hooded figure appeared to shake, as though convulsed by weeping. A voice could be heard, coming not from the figure but from an uncertain location: "Mercy, dear Lord, have mercy on me! Forgive me, Jesus!"

As Madame V. would tell Touquet, these words emboldened her to address the specter. It turned toward her, and the same disembodied voice demanded: "Why are you here? No one has the right to disturb the peace of a house that was built for the greater glory of God."

The exchange between the frightened homeowner and the otherworldly figure suggested that the long-dead monk was well aware of the affairs of the living, and of its own plight--no mindless ghost repeating senseless behavior. It made certain apocalyptic prophecies before asking Madame V. two questions: why hadn't she fed the prisoner in the basement, and why had she left the statue of the Blessed Virgin to lie among the rubble?

According to Touquet, Madame V. made up an excuse the following morning to have her sons go down to the extensive aumbries beneath the monastery. Both men reported finding what appeared to be prison cell and a religious statue, which was cleaned off an placed in the old monastery's oratory.

This should have satisfied the departed monk, but it only prompted the specter to reappear eleven more times on consecutive nights. Jean and Gaston began to notice the physical toll on their mother, who was becoming gaunt and unable to eat. Madame V. made the decision to abandon her bedroom and relocate to a smaller one which would hopefully not be visited by the supernatural presence.

The night she did so, a series of loud banging sounds shook the walls, loud enough to cause Jean and Gaston to wake up and conduct a thorough inspection of the premises, even the attic, thinking that an animal had somehow gotten into the house. Madame V.'s thoroughly Cartesian sons (who did not believe in God, Devil or supernatural events, according to Touquet) were at a loss to find a ready answer to the loud sounds. The violent blows continued for a number of nights, causing the men to believe that an intruder had gotten into the house through the extensive underground level.

It would not be long before Jean, the youngest son, began seeing things as well. "It's odd," he reportedly told his mother. "I notice as though something was following me. I've turned around yet can't see anything." He added having caught glimpses of a "black thing" floating beside him, but scoffed at the notion of ghosts.

Peace reigned at Le Prieuré for a while, until a new phantom entered the scene: a tall menacing figure, wearing what appeared to be a bishop's miter and cassock. Madame V. felt herself weaken and break into a cold sweat as the figure ordered her to leave the house, which had been "wrongfully seized from a religious order."

Skeptics Gaston and Jean were now beginning to hear clanging metallic sounds coming from behind the old stone walls and could not find any hidden chambers or passageways to account for them. One morning, while Madame V. and Gaston were sitting down to breakfast, Jean barged in shouting that "the ghost has crossed the main hall and gone into the library." A skeptic no more, the younger of Madame V.'s two sons would begin experiencing his own series of encounters with the unknown, some of them so unnerving that on October 28, 1956, he phoned his mother, who was staying in Paris, and asked her to return to Le Prieuré, since "he was beginning to go crazy." Upon her return, Madame V. sent Jean away to the city and remained in the old monastery all by herself.

Photographs of one of the ghosts were taken on two separate occasions, according to Touquet: October 18 and 26, 1956. The images show a dense light-grey vapor. But something even more important occurred on the second of these dates.

Having dropped off Gaston at the local train station, Madame V. returned home with great sadness only to find the ghost standing on a small landing on the staircase. Angrily, Madame V. charged up the stairs, uttering angry words. She thrust her hands into the mass of grey vapor. A sensation of glacial cold and shock washed over her as the figure vanished. Fortunately, Jean had seen her rash action and ran up to aid her, helping her to her room. Her hands swelled up and burned as though frostbitten; it was necessary for Jean to carefully saw his mother's jewelled rings off her hands. The swelling remained for two months, leaving small burn and scratch marks as a result of the experience.

The woman told Touquet that for a long time she had wanted to discover "if there was a skeleton" under the ghosts' shroud of grey vapor, but had felt nothing more than cold, viscous vapor.

But Madame V. would have a further encounter with the ghost on the landing, and a rather lengthy conversation, on the last sunday in March, 1960: She was alone at Le Prieuré with her dogs, when the animals began howling. The phantasm stood on the small landing on the staircase, holding its hands imploringly: "Release me from my chains!" it begged.

When asked how she could help, the entity told her he had died without having received the sacraments, and was punished for having allowed a man to starve to death in the cell beneath the monastery. He was slain and buried with his fellow monks under the building, and needed to have "the sign of the Cross and holy water poured over him".

In 1975, moved by this thoroughly compelling story, Spanish paranormalist Salvador Freixedo contacted Robert Touquet and inquired as to the possibility of visiting La Prieuré and conducting research. The author replied that Madame V., unable to cope with all of the manifestations, had sold the property to a construction company, which had in turn knocked it down to build a housing development. Freixedo speculated that "it would not be surprising for the monk to reappear in the houses which coincide with the exact location of the old monastery."

Haunted Buildings, New and Old

Literature and cinema have conditioned us to envision haunted houses as looking very much like the aforementioned monastery of Le Prieuré or the dark tezontle stone of the Mexican library in Valladolid. We often forget that more modern edifices can be just as haunted...and some have fiery stories to tell.

Researcher Bruno Cardeñosa interviewed a flight attendant for Aviaco, a major Spanish airline, whose flight crew had been booked into one the Meliá Corona, one of the city of Zaragoza's upscale hotels. "I knew nothing about the room [I was staying in], but the fact is that one night I felt the oppression of another presence. I could feel it at the window, as if trying to open it but unable to do so," she reported. "Nor could I sleep, since I felt that someone was looking over me just as I was drifting off. I thought it must be my nerves, or that my imagination playing tricks on me, but when I mentioned it to one of my colleagues, she told me immediately: "you must've spent the night in room 510. There's something going on there. You aren't the only one who's felt it."

Apparently no one in the Aviaco crew knew that the posh Meliá Corona had been the ill-fated Corona de Aragon hotel, which had been devastated by one of the most terrible hotel fires in history: seventy-nine guests died in 1981, unable to escape from the raging flames. Room 510's reputation precedes it: many guests have been unable to spend the night there, having heard the terrifying voices and cries of those who tried to open the window to hurl themselves to their deaths rather than burn.

Five years later and half a world away, a similar fate befell the Dupont Plaza hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, destroyed by an arson fire on New Year's Eve 1986. Although the death toll did not rise to the numbers of the Corona de Aragón conflagration, repair crews reported hearing screams and voices during the ten year span of the restoration effort.

The tragedy of human-initiated fires is awful enough; but what are we to make of fires of unknown (read paranormal) origin?

In April 1996, a series of strange fires took place in a farmstead near Sillobre, Spain. The small, random fires became an understandable source of concern to the owners, who asked officials for advice and assistance. Officialdom limited itself to recommending "a thorough cleaning of the septic tank" on the chance that an accumulation of gases could be the source of the small blazes. But despite the sanitizing effort, the phenomenon returned yet again to trouble authorities of the Xunta de Galicia, who steadfastly maintained that the problem stemmed from nothing more than a gas pocket and was "a phenomenon which lacks any scientific explanation at the moment."

Curiously, Carlos Muñoz, the environmental delegate in the nearby city of La Coruña, averred that the source of the problem were unknown "energies" which concentrate in the region and start the fire. The exact nature of the energies involved remained a mystery (CIPNO# 12, November 1996).

A 1995 report from Spain discussed a strange "poltergeist" case from the town of Coslada, a suburb of Madrid, which was so severe that it forced the embattled family to desert it. A succession of bizarre knocking sounds, unexplained crashing noises, sudden fires and odd shadow on the wall caused the building's occupants to contact a clairvoyant. The anonymous seer said that whatever the source of the paranormal infestation was, "it was too much for him": the forces possessing the house were apparently stronger than the psychic's ability to remedy the situation.

Worse than the poltergeist phenomenon was the fact that the family's son acquired an unusual blood disease which medical experts described as being hereditary in nature--the only problem was that such an illness had never been recorded on either sides of the family. The report concludes by stating that the structure's weary residents tore down the wallpaper in an effort to reduce possible fuel sources for the spontaneous fires, and were startled to find "weird symbols" on the wall which no one could identify.

An epidemic of phantom fires broke out in Chile in April 2001 and soon achieved international attention.

The modest home of Miguel Ulloa, his wife Irma, and their two children, Jesús, 2, and nine month old Moisés, became the focus for this most fearsome type of paranormal event. Spontaneous fires were erupting simultaneously, even setting the edges of a leather-bound Bible on fire shortly after a priest had said the Lord's Prayer within the structure.

Unlike most instances of paranormal "firestarting", there were plenty of witnesses to this one. Reporters from Chile's La Cuarta newspaper and other print media were present to witness--and photograph--the unholy blazes as they erupted along a wall and the home's ceiling.

Miguel Ulloa told the media that he was convinced that his family's unity and the religious assistance received would "get the devil out of the house once and for all. We want it to leave us alone."

On April 10, 2001 and in another neighborhood of Santiago de Chile, apartment dwellers Luis Torres and Carmen González were astonished beyond words after returning home and witnessing smoke and flame emerging from a hand towel in their bathroom. Shortly after, the plastic shower curtains were aflame. "The plastic shower curtains were burning. I threw water on them and my wife started to become hysterical", Torres would later tell reporters from the evening newspaper "La Segunda".

After a few minutes, the couple noticed how the right side of their bed, the blanket and the quilt started to burn. They methodically began to remove clothing and combustibles from the apartment in order to pour water over them, only to find that the bathtub itself, despite being full of water, was also blazing. Smoke poured from the closets as a startling discovery was made: the clothes hangers were aflame, but the clothes themselves were not.

Christian Chereau, a veteran lieutenant with the Santiago Fire Department and an expert in chemical fires, told the media that the fires in the Torres González household were beyond belief. "There really isn't a logical explanation, therefore, I believe that the next course of action that the Fire Department will have to take involves an exorcism."

Although neither the EFE newswire nor the Chilean newspapers provided any follow-ups on each couple's experiences, it is interesting to read what authors Fátima Machado and Wellington Zangari have to say about these incidents in their book Conversando Sobre Casas Mal-Assombradas (Sao Paulo: Ediciones Paulinas, 1995). Discussing cases of spontaneous psychokinesis, the authors suggest a double approach: first, determining that the case is clearly paranormal and not a hoax, and second, determining if a human agent is responsible for a "psychic hemorrhage" or spontaneous PK in a 50 meter radius, or if a discarnate being is involved. Machado and Zangari are convinced that family psychotherapy is especially helpful in these cases (an avenue suggested in the case of both Chilean families by parapsychologist Juan Pardo, who insisted that both families were "unable to control their energies" and that the source of the fires was "within their unconscious"), and that important distinctions must be made between a haunted house and a location in which a poltergeist outbreak has occurred: apparitions remain in the haunted house, observe the authors, while poltergeists trail along with the affected family no matter where they happen to go.

Within the Walls of Stone

The reason for hauntings, on certain occasions, is more often than not of a grisly nature. This is the case of Venezuela's "House of Stones" (la casa de las piedras) in Ciudad Bolivar.

The unwholesome location would have gone ignored by the rest of the world had it not been for an article appearing in Nueva Prensa ( describing the experiences of one Esteban González (pseudonym) on a rainy evening in May 1998. González was driving down Ciudad Bolivar's Libertador Avenue when every system in his car -- a Chevy Chevette -- went dead, forcing the driver to coast to a halt, much like occurs in UFO cases. Surprised by the unexpected occurrence, González got out of the car and looked under the hood, unable to find anything wrong. At that moment, he heard the howling of dogs coming from within a stone structure not too distant from his car. The driver had no idea that his car had gone dead in front of the "Casa de las Piedras" -- also known as "la Casa del Diablo" (the Devil's House).

A noxious odor wafted through the air, unexpectedly, causing González to feel fear. He would later tell reporters for Nueva Prensa that he felt the presence of "something supra-normal" at the location. He admitted to having heard of the legend, but having paid little attention to it. His experience was merely one of many involving the abandoned house whose back yard --as was discovered in 1968 -- was a charnel pit containing the bones of children and dogs alike.

The newspaper article characterizes the structure as "a building of European influence, with part of its walls made of stone, as well as the enclosing perimeter. It has a chimney inside it and strange spots cover the walls." As if this didn't suffice to put off curiosity-seekers, the entry adds: "[it] is similar to castles found in a horror movie, or the cloisters of a forsaken abbey."

"Casa de las Piedras" has been abandoned for years, and those who pass in front of it claim having had strange experiences. Stranger still are the experiences of those who have tried to occupy the old structure, usually vacating it within days.

In the 1960s - or so the story goes - the grim structure was the home of a tall Trinidadian gentleman, dressed in somber clothing. His presence was a cause for concern among the locals, as he was know for his irrational attachment to dogs - mainly Dobermans and Rottweilers, which followed him everywhere as he bestrode the streets of Ciudad Bolivar, always wearing an outsized black hat.

"It was then," says the Nueva Prensa article, "that reports of strange disappearances of 10-year-old boys and girls began to circulate. Police inquiries eventually lead to the place in question: Casa de las Piedras. A pit containing the remains of children and dogs was found in 1968, while Satanic symbols were found on the walls along with the so-called "Black Bible" (Anton La Vey's Satanic Bible, perhaps?). The Trinidadian - allegedly responsible for the slayings - vanished and was never seen again.

In the mid-1970s, according to the feature, a couple from Bolivar moved into the house, unmindful of the dark lore that surrounded the stone structure. The unexplained sound of howling dogs did not appear to deter them either, but having their their bed "supernaturally and inexplicably" shaken with savage force one night prompted them to move out the next day. Twenty years later, the local government arbitrarily housed a group of wandering natives in the abandoned house. That very same night, the natives were seen running down Avenida Libertador, shouting for help. In broken Spanish, one of the indians (possibly a Warao tribesman) said that the ghost of "a tall woman, dressed in white and with eyes blazing like hot coals" appeared. Even more disturbing was the description of the entity making "the sound of clacking bones" as it walked.

Religious authorities in this predominantly Catholic country, when consulted as to the possibility of performing an exorcism on the old house, replied that there were no plans for a face-off with the supernatural forces generated by the worship of evil at that location. "Better to leave it unoccupied, and keep things as they are."


Believing in ghosts or haunted houses appears to require very little suspension of disbelief for most people. Even the most hardened skeptic is willing to entertain a story about a haunted house or the unexpected apparition of a long-deceased relative rather than deal with UFO cases, for example. Since nothing human should be alien to us, according to the ancient Roman philosophers, the presence of departed humans in old buildings should hardly constitute any surprise.

But few among the living actively enjoy these fleeting brushes with the afterlife, as can sometimes be experienced in a structure heavy with the past. Popular television programs have lead us to believe that most of these locations are in cold, damp Northern European locations that are better suited to ghostly activity. However, Southern Europe and Latin America can hold their own when it comes to haunted places.