By Thomas Anthony
There it stood, just as described in so many gothic novels and scary movies : the bleak, unwelcoming, massive square bulk of the house, at the end of a long, winding avenue in the midst of the wild northwest of Ireland. The eighteenth century - my favourite century - had produced so many graceful houses, such comfortable neoclassical environments; this was the rare exception. Without exactly breaking the aesthetic rules, the proportions were somehow forbidding, the windows looking small in comparison to the expanse of masonry. The big house seemed to sit impassively, hunched against the chill weather of the November evening. Even the name sounded uncompromising - Brown Hall. It felt like the opening chapter of an Emily Bronte novel. It did not look inviting.
But invited I had been - to the twenty-first birthday celebration of a college friend's brother, to be exact. So after five hours in a bus, here I was, about to meet my hosts.
My friend ushered me into the drawing room, a large and quite cheerful space, lined with family portraits. A roaring fire offered comfort after the chill outside. I was greeted by her father, the master of the house. A short, friendly man, with twinkling eyes and a slightly mischievous air, he heartily bade me welcome and take a seat. A chatty man, after pouring me a generous drink and taking one himself, he began to tell me the stories to which the house was heir, some dating back centuries.
There was a young woman who married into the family around the time of the French Revolution. I was shown a watercolour portrait of her in which she looked frail and sad. The marriage was unhappy; she pined away and died. Her ghost was often seen in what used to be her bedroom, the same room, my host informed me, with a twinkle in his eye, in which I would be staying. The room was also notable for strange disappearances, albeit temporary ones. Two maiden aunts came to stay once and were unpacking in the haunted room. One decided to continue unpacking, while the other went down to the drawing room for tea. After some time, she decided to go back up again to the bedroom. To her surprise, her sister was nowhere to be found. Later on, the sister appeared in the drawing room. On being asked where she had gone, she said she had never left the bedroom the whole time. Had she been hiding behind the wallpaper? The family nodded and smiled at the familiar old tales, while I sipped my gin and tonic, wondering if I had strayed into an episode of The Twilight Zone. My cheerful host, seeing my bemusement, felt encouraged to tell me more about the house and its unusual character.
His wife, he told me, once planted flowers at the front of the house, only to find the following morning that they had been replanted at the back. Once, early in their marriage, when alone in the house, she had been terrified by the sounds of groans and rattling chains growing more and more insistent; she had been about to flee when her husband returned home just in time to prevent her from running out into the night. On another occasion, while his wife was showing the house to a woman and her young son who had stopped in for tea before embarking on a journey abroad, they were followed from room to room by the smell of candles and incense. Later the same day, the same guests were killed in a road accident. I downed the rest of my drink - my stay now seemed to be entering the realm of dangers that might turn out to be more than just ethereal. My friend shot me looks of sympathy, along with imprecations to her father not to be such a tease, and to stop frightening me to death, but it was too late - the damage had been done. I was good and scared. The smiles of the ancestors who looked down at me from their portraits on the walls seemed complicit with my host - I was on my own, and would have to face a night in the four-post bed all alone.
The bedroom was large and furnished exactly as it would have been in the previous century, even to the china washbasin and ewer that stood on a dressing table in the embrasure of a window; comforts were sparse but perfectly adequate. The post-19th century touch was the provision of electricity, for which I was deeply thankful, as it provided me with a small bedside lamp. I got into the large bed, protected (from what?) by its canopy and drapes supported by four posts, and waited. I decided that if the pale lady were to pay me a nocturnal visit, I would at least have the comfort of electricity in the form of my brave little lamp - left burning throughout - by my side. I was too scared to even contemplate the possibility of a power cut.
Perhaps I slept, but I don't remember doing so. I only know that dawn eventually came, and I got up to see what view the windows offered. To my delight, the countryside was covered in snow - a white landscape greeted me, its brightness making my lamplight redundant. Une nuit blanche, as the French say, in every sense, both white and sleepless. Someone came to light the fire - an old fashioned and delightful touch, and I felt that my stay might not be so bad after all.
The following night, after all the festivities, with a house full of guests, I was again in my large canopied bed, but this time I was sharing the room with several others who were stretched out on the floor in sleeping bags. There was even a recumbent guest, snoring in the arms of Bacchus, stretched out on the bed beside me. I no longer felt at all scared; there is safety in numbers. The light was switched off, all the others were asleep, and I had no fear. I was not even thinking of ghosts, when suddenly and for no reason, the bedroom door burst open with a bang.
Nobody stirred; perhaps they had drunk too much to be easily awoken. I felt excited - what would happen next? I was ready for anything, surrounded by all these people, hoping something interesting would follow. But nothing did. I had been allowed one tantalising - and apparently exclusive, as I was the only one awake - glimpse of the supernatural. For that, and for the fact that I had not been alone - I was grateful.
I have never been one of those who completely dismiss the possibility of another world, unseen to us but inhabited by those who pass on, and perhaps by other beings also. Polls say that between half and three-quarters of Americans believe in angels. (Mind you, six percent believe in unicorns!). Denying that anything at all exists beyond what we can physically see, hear and touch seems to me a very limited perspective, a materialism more at home in a 19th century, Newtonian world than one in which quantum physics has opened previously unimaginable possibilities of parallel dimensions, universes and realities - even time travel. These are theories which work perfectly well on paper, but are usually impossible to prove in a lab. For this reason, one presumes, the diehard materialists pooh-pooh the idea that there is any reality beyond our three-dimensional one, despite the mounting body of theoretical evidence that argues powerfully that there are, in fact, many. When presented with accounts of people's experiences that are genuine, and impossible to explain within the parameters of the limited reality that they defend, they bend over backwards to find far-fetched explanations to account for them. This culture of total denial has been so deep-rooted among scientists, that many who privately believe that reality is indeed larger than what our eyes perceive, and that what we call paranormal events do indeed occur, are simply too scared of ridicule and professional suicide ever to publicly say so. This has happened before - there was tremendous resistance from established scientific bodies to the theory that the earth was round, and that the earth revolved around the sun, but in time, truth prevailed over rigidity of thought.
And the tide may be slowly turning. Increasingly, evidence mounts supporting a new and vastly more expanded view of the nature of reality, and as more and more people, including even scientists, recount personal events, such as Near-Death Experiences, now recognised as much more widespread than previously thought, and that some decades ago would not have been told for fear of ridicule, science is beginning, ever-so-hesitantly, to find ways to encompass these hitherto uncomfortable and inconvenient phenomena, and may yet come up with a new Theory of Everything. I certainly hope so - some scientists are beginning to be quietly interested in getting to the bottom of unexplainable events, and I would love to know exactly how and why that door suddenly burst open.
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