Tag Archives: Pennsylvania

Spiritual Walls

I often ponder what a difference walls make. Perhaps our ancient, cave-dwelling DNA just runs away with imaginations, but walls make us feel safe. Most of the time. As I was reading the ensemble-written The Haunted, by Robert Curran, Ed and Lorraine Warren, and Jack and Janet Smurl, the concept of walls showed its other face. In the mid-to late-1980s, the Smurls lived in a haunted house. The West Pittston duplex in Pennsylvania was also home to their four daughter’s and Jack’s parents. And the entity that harassed them there was deemed a demon. It’s easy to be skeptical about such accounts—no physical proof exists, after all, and proving anything is pretty near impossible anyway. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, apparently this become quite a media event. It’s easy to question the whole thing. Then I think about walls.

Although there are public haunted buildings, I often wonder about specific residences that foster claims of haunting. If spirits are, well, spiritual beings that can pass through walls, why would they stay in a house? In the case of the demon that everyone in the family saw, what does it mean to see physically a being that has no physical reality? And when the priest exorcised their house, why did they look to see where the incorporeal being might be hiding? It seems that the demon needed walls too.

Human beings are natural actors. We behave differently at home than we do in public. We act differently with friends than with strangers. Even closer to home, we act more natural with our families than we do even with friends. Beneath all these layers of pretending, most of us still act differently when we’re alone. That’s where walls come in. Although knowing someone’s in the next room might temper our behavior, the family unit within its walls is one intimate collective. What was happening within the walls of the Smurl household three decades ago? Any recounting will involve retelling. Interpretation. And we all know what a difference walls can make. The neighbors, according too this book, could hear demonic screams. Some even experienced invasions of their own during the height of the haunting. Books like this have a way of drawing you in, opening windows and doors through the walls into someone else’s life. What actually happens to them, however, is something we’ll only learn when walls begin to talk.

Parks and Wreck

It was a bit of a shock to see Bethel Park on the list. I make no bones about being a Democrat. I’ve supported progressive causes on an evolving journey since high school. When I saw the news that Conor Lamb is a worthy contender for the 39th district seat in my native western Pennsylvania, and that this area is “deep red,” I had to look it up. A special election’s coming up and the district is leaning a little blue. Historically, until 2010, it had been Democrat territory. But Bethel Park has other associations for me. My wife will pardon me, I hope, for saying it was the home of my first girlfriend.

As a naive and thoroughly Pauline Fundamentalist, I always believed marriage was against God’s will. The Bible says as much. Still, Paul magnanimously allows for marriage to those who “burn.” I’d felt the heat once or twice as a boy becoming a man, but I’d adequately stifled it with Scripture and the comparative fires of Hell. I was strong. I would never marry, I told myself. College up to that point had involved a cenobitic separation of the sexes in an all-male dorm on a campus where the rule was to sit with a Bible’s width between a guy and his girl. I met her at church summer camp where we were counselors together. She was from the city—Bethel Park is a suburb of Pittsburgh—and I was a kid from what she called “Roosterville” (the town of 900 souls was actually technically “Rouseville”). The ways of love, I was learning, were liberal.

To a point. That relationship limped along for a couple of years. I got on with my life, attended seminary and met my wife there. Bethel Park, I knew, had been named from the Bible. Bethel was the place of Jacob’s dream, the original stairway to Heaven. My first lady friend was impressed with my biblical knowledge—it was really about all I had to offer. Things improved after meeting the woman I would marry. Boston would remain a blue city while Bethel Park would degenerate from purple to red. When did this happen? The working class boy from Roosterville believes in equal rights for all. And now District 39 has a decision to make. Will the stairway to Heaven be limited to those who can afford those swank suburban houses? Or will the district remember its heritage that was blue from 1969 until we had our first African American president? “This,” Jacob muttered “is none other than the gate of Heaven.” Or, it could be, just another brick in the wall.

Nothing Better

While it may seem that the largest challenge on a blog like this is writing all these words every day, that’s often not the case. Early on in my blogging life, I learned that images draw readers in. That may no longer be the case, but I do try to ensure that my posts have apt illustrations. Due to the fact that I can’t keep up with technology, I no longer know where these images are even stored, so when I was seeking a picture—amid thousands—that I had saved on my backup drive, I came across a series of photos taken in central Pennsylvania. These showed some road-cuts with obvious and impressive folding of geological layers characteristic of orogenous zones. Geologists only discovered the earth was ancient in the nineteenth century, and evangelicals have been disputing it ever since.

Genesis, so the spotless thinking goes, says the world was created in six days. So, by God, in six days it was created! When Darwin simply put the pieces of the puzzle together, evangelicals objected loudly. They started electing US presidents in the next century—a blink of the eye in geologic terms. They don’t dispute non-biblical dinosaurs, however. Their kids would object. The impressive sedimentary layers (or for that matter, igneous or metamorphic) were, they claim, made by God to look old. To fool us. That’s the kind of deity he is. So I got to thinking of a “to do list” for a God with nothing better to do than to oversee intricate and complicated layers of rock that make sense in geological time, but which, apparently, are only planted here to test the faith of brand-spanking new Homo sapiens.

One thing such a deity might do is take care of social injustice. Since he is a father, I suspect we ought to listen to his son, my evangelical friends. Jesus of Nazareth seemed pretty set on helping other people and everyone loving one another. This was, of course, between stints of helping make the planet look older than it actually is so that sinful scientists could trick their compatriots into going to Hell by believing false evidence. There are so many things you could do if you had the time to make such intricate traps. Why not write another book, for example? The Bible could use a good sequel. But no, it is far better to spend divine time making a world look older than it is. And if I had been able to save the time looking for that image that took over half an hour to find, a post such as this would’ve never been created at all.

Keystones

It was one of the very few parties to which I’d been invited in Edinburgh. “When a Scotsman asks you where you’re from,” one of the guests said to me, “he means where you were born.” Although we have no control or say over where we come into the world, we do feel that the place has a claim on us. Combined with my undying interest in local history, that means I like to read books about my native Pennsylvania. I was a first generation Pennsylvanian, to be sure, but to keep a nearly forgotten Scotsman happy, that’s where I’m from. Sarah Hutchison Tassin’s Pennsylvania Ghost Towns: Uncovering the Hidden Past is that familiar kind of book considered light reading, geared largely to the tourist and nostalgic past visitor or homebody crowd. Still, these kinds of quick studies often inspire the imagination. Lots of people lived here before you did.

A couple of factors stood out to me about Pennsylvania’s elder communities. One obvious feature is that a number of them began as intentional religious communities. Often breakaway sects from some major denomination, they established settlements to pursue spirituality in their own way, generally with strict rules, such as celibacy, that would spell their ultimate demise. Pennsylvania is well known for its separatist Anabaptist sects—Amish, Mennonites, and others who’ve been around for centuries and have integrated into the cultural mix of the state. I had no idea that a few ghost towns remain where some less successful spiritual seekers had broken ground. The second feature that stood out is how many communities were intentionally founded for commercial purposes. Often these were mining or lumber-processing towns. Some wealthy individual would buy a natural resource, build houses and a communal store, and permit workers to purchase goods only there. This meant individuals could never save money and never really afford to leave the mine or mill.

These are two very different conceptions of what it means to live in community. One is overly idealistic the other overly exploitative. At one end, the basic necessities of life—food, shelter, clothing—were kept from those who found themselves, like most of us, in need of a job. Or, at the other extreme, being held back from eternal life by failure to keep to the rules of a newly revealed religion. I never really thought of towns intentionally founded in these ways before. My naive view was more eclectic. But then, what do I know? I was born in a small Pennsylvania town and never thought to question why it was there. Where are you from? It’s a matter of perspective.

Night of the Museum

I admit to being a relative stranger to contemporary commercial television. We don’t have “triple play” at home, and since the internet provides more information and entertainment than one person can possibly handle in a lifetime, why pay extra? On a visit home, however, where internet does not yet exist, I fell to the default of watching TV. Scrolling through the cable channels available in this small town, I start to understand why we don’t pay extra for this at home. Much on offer appeals to the lowest common denominator, and although some educational programs exist, they have to put somebody in danger in some remote location in order to draw the viewers in. Then I stumbled on Mysteries at the Museum.

For those of us hopelessly enamored of the past, museums are an irresistible draw. I joined the program already in progress. It was talking about Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, through which we’d driven to get here. A resort town in the Poconos, I always think of Stroudsburg as a traffic bottleneck, particularly on a holiday weekend. Instead the story was telling of a haunted jail in which a prisoner had to be exorcised after it was found that he could make it rain inside his cell. Then the name of the Warrens was mentioned. The Bible used in the exorcism is from their occult museum (thus the tie to the title of the program). Ed and Lorraine Warren, as my regular readers know, get mentioned here every once in a while. Real life ghost hunters, they kept a museum of the occult in their Connecticut home. I’d missed the part of the program where they revealed the provenance of the artifact. Now things started to make sense. After the commercial break, however, the story shifted to a historic pair of hiking boots.

Image credit: Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Photo by Doug Kerr, Wikimedia Commons.

What was so striking about this brief segment of the show was not the implied credulousness of the investigation, but rather the certainty with which those interviewed declared this was a water demon case. Okay, so I’d just finished a seven-hour drive and I may not have been at my sharpest, but where did such certainty come from? Who were these experts telling us what had happened? I’ve read enough of the Warrens’ accounts to get a sense of how they worked, but not even the name of the priest was presented, let alone that of the demon. What we had, then, in this 15-minute segment, was a Bible and an anecdote of rain falling in a Stroudsburg jail. As I switched off the program to go to bed, I knew that I’d find the missing information on the internet. Even without triple play.

The Price of Worship

The wind resistance alone must drive the cost of gas up considerably. Of course, with Yahweh on your side you don’t need to worry about pocket change. We were driving through a sleepy town in the Poconos. A light rain was falling. We came upon a truck advocating not for the usual and expected Christ, but instead for Yahweh. Promising “dramatically affected” lives for those who do so, the implied message on this portable billboard is somewhat ominous. We are apparently being restrained by “non-mortal, non-native beings of ill-intent.” The grammar of the placard confuses things a bit since it seems to suggest that calling on Yahweh will “release restraints on” said non-mortals, and that’s hardly a good thing. I suppose they can’t reveal the nature of these entities without giving away spoilers for drawing the curious in.

This vague, supernatural world presided over by the personal name of the deity seems just a little out of place in Bible country. There’s a kind of literalism about Pennsylvania that I find strangely comforting. It is where and how I grew up. I never encountered God’s personal name—at least not with first-person familiarity—until I attended college. Even then we were encouraged to be careful with its use. The commandment about taking the divine name in vain is just a bit disconcertingly unspecific, considering that it isn’t spelled out in more detail. And who exactly are these beings of ill-intent? They’re all the more frightening for not being named. Demons, I must suppose, but I don’t recall the Good Book saying anything about their restraints being released. This is a new kind of apocalypse maybe.

The thing about the Bible is that it’s everybody’s book. Some modern translations use Yahweh rather freely, opting for the admission that translating it leads only to more questions and “Lord” is obfuscation. Still, it seems awfully familiar. The need to air one’s personal beliefs, in some quarters, is very intense. There’s a passion behind this proclamation that I can’t help but admire. People stop and stare. Some, like yours truly, will want photographs of your vehicle. I suppose that’s the point, nevertheless, not too many people like being stared at. Evangelical culture demands it, as I recall from my youth. Putting your personal beliefs out there comes with a price. Part of that may be reduced gas milage and, consequently, pocket change.

The Unliving

Western Pennsylvania, from which I hail, has few claims to fame. One, still largely forgotten, is that it was the birthplace of the petroleum industry. Remains of the early exploitation of the fossil fuel still lie scattered carelessly in the woods. Another claim to fame is that the region was the adopted home of George Romero and served as the setting for his groundbreaking film, Night of the Living Dead. Unintentionally, Romero created what continues to shamble on in the form of the modern zombie. Although the movie doesn’t call the living dead “zombies,” it established the trope of their endless hunger for human flesh and their rabid bite. So it was with sadness that I read of Romero’s death a couple of days ago. Although he wasn’t from Pittsburgh, he established the city as zombie central. It’s nice that he gave something back.

Zombies have, due to their protean nature, become a fixture among the monster constellations. They represent the worst of what people can be—selfish and brainless, without empathy, their own cravings being the only matters of importance to them. Sounds kind of like the Republican Party. The rest of the world calls them monsters. Night of the Living Dead shocked audiences of the late 1960s with its graphic portrayal of cannibalism and thoughtless destruction. Interestingly, the choice of a strong African American lead for the movie was, according to interviews with Romero, simply a matter of his being the best actor, not an intentional racial statement. (That too reminded me of western Pennsylvania; there were racial tensions where I grew up, but many of us befriended those who were “different” without any clue that it should matter at all.) Duane Jones carried off the role of Ben with conviction and energy. He died young but he never became a zombie.

To make an impact intention need not be present. While Romero denied for the rest of his life that the movie was “about” the Vietnam War, and that his choice of a black lead was a racial statement, both of these factors became facts about the film. Concepts, in other words, like zombies, may rise from the dead. Beyond the shock and gore, the movie made a powerful, if unintentional, statement. It helped to define Romero’s future career. A success in a difficult industry may indeed decide one’s fate. George Romero would go on to make many other monster movies. Western Pennsylvania would become a zombie haven. You never know what you might find scattered about in those forgotten woods of your childhood home.