Haunting Hudson

After Maine, the one place I’ve always wanted to live, but never had the opportunity, or could never afford, is upstate New York.  My ancestors were from the state but I just happen to’ve been born in Pennsylvania.  So it goes.  Perhaps it comes with professionally studying mythology, but one of my longterm interests is folklore.  I’m always fascinated by what people tell of their local setting.  Now when I approach books about the paranormal in a region, such as Cheri Farnsworth’s Haunted Hudson Valley, I know to take most of it with a grain of salt.  People love to tell stories and local people like to talk about where they’re from.  The Hudson Valley has had a long history of strangeness and several tales that reflect that are collected here.

I often think of ghosts.  They generally seem to prefer a single place that’s familiar.  And although you can’t take everything everyone says as gospel, there do seem to be regions beset with them.  I wonder if regions early settled by Europeans are particularly prone to haunting.  It’s difficult to imagine that, at the time with the unquestioned rectitude of church and empire, that they ever stopped to think “Hey, we’re stealing land that belongs to someone else.”  Did that idea ever come back to haunt them?  Perhaps such unspoken guilt leads to ghosts.  Or maybe simply dwelling in a place for a long time leaves plenty of opportunity for ghosts to gather.  And, of course, people do stretch the truth at times and misinterpret things otherwise explained.

No matter the reasons or rationale, these kinds of books are always a guilty pleasure read for me.  I don’t expect the get the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth from them, but I enjoy them nevertheless.  Since I can’t afford to live in the Hudson Valley, the other result of such books—and one of the reasons locals appreciate them—is to make me want to travel to the region and see for myself.  For many years we lived not too far from the Hudson while in New Jersey.  Still, we didn’t make it up that way very often.  It’s a bit more of a hike now, but isn’t a hike worth making when you might see something unusual after you arrive?  My ancestors had settled north of the Hudson Valley and eventually migrated further south.  The end up in Pennsylvania, where I find myself.  But I’m still haunted by upstate New York.


Some places are quite ordinary.  Once you get to know the people, however, you begin to find some oddities.  That’s all normal.  Other places, however, are strange for one reason or another.  One such region is the Hudson Valley in New York.  With all the UFO news the past couple of years, I grew curious about the sightings in the Hudson Valley from about 1983 to 1986.  This was a period when hundreds of sightings were reported of an object flying low and slow, and even hovering, over several locations throughout the region.  They were investigated by J. Allen Hynek and Philip J. Imbrogno, and written up with the help of Bob Pratt.  Night Siege: The Hudson Valley UFO Sightings was published by a mainstream house (Ballantine, a division of Random House).  Not exactly belles lettres, the book is pretty bare bones.  It contains some interesting information, however.

Hynek, who worked for years with Project Bluebook and who was a bona fide scientist, was ailing as the book was written.  Indeed, he died before this book was published.  His name is the big draw, however, since he was a respected authority in the field.  Some questions have been raised about Imbrogno’s accounts of himself, but that shouldn’t take away from the data collected on the Hudson Valley phenomenon.  In short: in a period of mostly two years (1983 and 1984) several “flaps” of reports came in regarding an object that was described in similar terms by hundreds of people, many of them well-educated professionals.  The authorities trotted out mundane explanations that don’t fit the evidence, although even noted skeptics stated that the sightings were unexplainable.  Part of the weird Hudson Valley.

But not just there.  In 1997 a large number of people in Phoenix reported a similar object over Arizona.  This one made national news and even led to stunts by uncomfortable politicians.  We’ve become such an arrogant species that we’re reluctant to admit there are things we just can’t understand, it seems.  Or that there might not possibly be anyone smarter than us anywhere in this vast—indeed, infinite—universe.  I don’t pretend to know what people were seeing in the Hudson Valley, or in Phoenix, but I also don’t pretend that ruling out logical possibilities will give an answer.  I tend to think that when large numbers of people see something that’s unexplained, it’s an insult to our collective intelligence to make up something and refuse to consider the options.  The solution, to me, seems to be to read.  Widely.  Even if it only raises more questions.

Not Just Horsemen

With the way they’ve been in the news, UFOs have started to arouse some curiosity.  Since I’ve been reading about the culture of the Hudson, Linda Zimmermann’s Hudson Valley UFOs caught my eye.  I hadn’t realized that the book was essentially self-published.  There are legitimate reasons for self-publishing, primarily that established presses can be quite standoffish.  What you find in book form is largely determined by publishers who decide what will or won’t merit their attention.  Self-publication comes with its own set of problems, including marketing and, as I written before, lack of editing.  Zimmermann’s book is quite interesting but could have used some editorial attention.  It does aid credibility.  Subtitled Startling Eyewitness Accounts from 1909 to the Present, the book is essentially that, collated accounts, some in their own words, some retold.

As became clear shortly after starting the book, this is a second volume for a previous book that I hadn’t heard of.  There is a fascination reading such accounts.  Many can be dismissed and each should be treated with some skepticism.  The thing is, there are so many reports from this area that it’s difficult to jettison the lot.  People with nothing to gain, withholding their names, see things in the sky they can’t explain.  As Zimmermann points out, Project Blue Book didn’t help with its prosaic and often bizarre explanations that are harder to believe than the eyewitness accounts, many of them from Air Force personnel.  What’s emerged in recent years—some would argue since the end of the Second World War—is that the government actively advocated ridicule and intimidation, perhaps because of secret weapons testing.  This policy has made the truth behind UFOs difficult to excavate.

Books like Zimmermann’s have their place in collecting information.  Civilians, however, generally lack the resources necessary for analysis.  Governments worldwide have recently been coming out of the closet.  They too have been treating this seriously while telling everyone simply to ignore it.  People are curious by nature and we live in an apparently infinite universe.  Strange things happen and ridicule is one of the surest ways to shut down serious discussion.  There’s quite a bit of information in this book, and some of it could help point to the long associations of the Hudson Valley with the unusual.  Mainstream publishers are beginning to lose their shyness about the topic and we as a species don’t know as much about this universe as we think we do.  As long as we talk about what we see, this will remain a topic of interest.

Sacred Hudson

As scientific as we may wish to be, there’s no denying that there is a sense of place.  We know that some animals, at least, also feel it.  Whether theirs is a more pragmatic desire to return to where conditions were favorable to be born, or whether something deeper draws them there, we have no way of knowing.  People feel it too, this sense of place.  We know where we’re from, and if we don’t we often want to find out.  The space is somehow part of us.  There’s a compelling exploration of this in Judith Richardson’s Possessions: The History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley.  While not America’s first haunted location, the Hudson Valley was singled out for this treatment by Washington Irving.  He, however, didn’t invent it.

I’m not from the Hudson Valley.  I could never afford to live there.  That doesn’t mean the area can’t speak to me.  Richardson’s approach is academic yet readable and she considers how hauntings fill needs and how they play a role in that ever-contentious enterprise of land claims.  Ranging through literary treatments, whether the fiction of Irving or tour books of the next generation, or indeed, more recent literary efforts, Richardson deftly guides the reader through American Indian and Dutch and other inhabitants’ stories of themselves.  Race inevitably plays a part, and her tracing of the origins of some traditional tales is really remarkable.  Who owns the land?  Who truly owns anything?   

Similar treatments (I can’t help but feel somehow lesser) must exist of other haunted locations.  Richardson doesn’t engage in arguments over whether ghosts are factual since ghosts serve so many other functions.  Our lives are the stories we tell about ourselves.  Many of those tales involve the place we are or places we’ve been.  In our highly mobile society, few of us, it seems, can make a living where we’re from.  Those of us born in small towns range far and wide to find employment.  In many cases we may not want to go live where the drama of our childhoods unfolded.  Yes, there are pleasant memories there, but there are also ghosts.  Richardson explores how this plays out in one small stretch of the country.  Indeed, it’s a small stretch of New York state.  Stories of hauntings continue in that particular valley.  Uncanny, perhaps, but there are places in this world like that, and this book is a sure road post on this particular overgrown trail.