By Robert Racicot
Tim, Oxford’s library director, laughed that eternal laugh of his as he locked me in for the night. When Tim laughs, you’re never quite sure if he’s laughing with you or at you. And now that I think about it, I don’t remember laughing myself.
“Remember, I’m not setting the alarms, so you can’t leave the place unprotected, no matter what happens,” he said, chuckling like a leprechaun. The more I thought about it, he did look like a character from an Irish folktale, with his grey-flecked red beard, elbow-patched brown tweed coat, and green plaid ascot.
“No matter what happens,” I replied with false confidence.
◆ ◆ ◆
When I first met Tim, I wanted to know about his experiences in the library. “Have you ever witnessed anything strange?” I asked.
“No, no, not me. The others have. I’m not quite sure what to make of it. I don’t really believe all that stuff, anyway.”
“Yeah, me neither. It’s just research for a book.” What I didn’t tell him is that there is nothing that I want more than to encounter a ghost. “Has anyone ever died in the library?” I asked.
With pursed lips and squinted eyes, he answered, “Hmmm, not that I’ve heard or read about.”
“So, usually you need someone to die where the ghost appears. At least that’s my thinking with this stuff.”
Tim let out a good guffaw. “I’m really not sure,” he said, this coming out like, There’s something wrong you.
“Well, that’s my theory going into this,” I said.
“Sure. Whatever you say.”
I could tell that he was just in a hurry to get away from me and obviously bored with my interest in this silly adventure.
Tim felt compelled to run my request to stay overnight alone up the chain of Oxford’s town leaders, from the board of selectmen to the town manager, with a courtesy notification to the police and fire chiefs just in case a resident spirit possessed me to burn all the books like a Bradbury fireman. Now all the major players of Oxford’s local government are convinced I do indeed have a screw loose in my head.
Of course, I had a real purpose here beyond hoping to see a ghost. I am on a quest to get the young kids of Oxford to read more. I had heard rumors that the library was haunted, so I figured, hey, what kid doesn’t like a good ghost story? For that matter, what adult doesn’t?
◆ ◆ ◆
Tim left me standing alone in the entrance foyer between the stairs leading to the basement and the stairs leading up to the library’s main floor. Breena, the helpful, thirty-something head librarian with long dark hair, a stern face, and a rare penchant to smile told me something interesting. It was just outside these doors, she said, that an Oxford patrolman driving by in his cruiser had spotted someone standing by the doors after hours. The patrolman had parked, shined his spotlight on the door, and saw what appeared to be a person standing inside the door. He proceeded to exit his car and walk up to the entrance when the person disappeared. The story, while intriguing, was secondhand; I needed to get the officer’s eyewitness description, and to do that, I needed a name. Breena claimed she couldn’t remember his name; I suspect she was protecting his identity.
Where I stood in the foyer was also the same spot where Josh, a previously employed high school student, claimed to have seen a glowing white image while he was working behind the checkout counter at the top of the stairs. Just then, the headlights from a car driving down Sigourney Street flashed a bright white reflection through the sliding glass door entrance.
I decided to start my self-guided tour in the basement. After all, basements are high on the list of creepy places. As I descended the stairs into the dark abyss, goosebumps erupted across my arms, and I felt that signature chill tingling the back of my head. I stopped in my tracks. The scientist in me knows that ghosts can’t exist. For starters, they violate the laws of thermodynamics and fail the scientific method test. But my shadow-self, chock full of childhood fears of unknown things, told me otherwise, and believe me, I want ghosts to be real. That way, at least, my fears would have some validation.
When I opened the door at the bottom of the stairs, the change in smell was instant. A musty, earthy smell brought back memories of my grandparent’s dirt-floored, stone-walled, spiderweb-entombed basement. To the right, a low ceiling with white exposed heating pipes ran along a dark hallway that led to a storage and utility room. To the left was a room with an open wall of horizontal metal bars imprisoning the town’s antique relics: hand-crafted pieces of home and manufacturing life during Oxford’s rich three-hundred-year history.
◆ ◆ ◆
It was outside this room where Breena told me she had once heard a male voice asking, “Is that her?” with a different male’s voice answering, “No, it’s not.”
I asked her, “Where you alone in the library at the time?”
“Yes, I was closing up.”
“What time of year did this happen?”
“So the heat was on?”
“Yes, I had just turned it down for the night.”
The library was built in 1906. The heating system is an oil-fired boiler that pushes hot steam through the overhead cast iron pipes. I imagined that it could bang and hiss when the heat kicked on or cooled down, so I asked, “Is it possible the pipes made noises that sounded like voices?”
Breena is the consummate professional, courteous but stoic. She gave me that look, the one that people make when they feel falsely accused of lying. “No,” she said, “human voices do not sound like banging pipes.”
I chuckled like Tim the Leprechaun. “Yes, of course. I’m just trying to understand what’s happening here.” The last thing I wanted was to upset Breena. She had been immensely gracious and open-minded regarding my request to stay overnight in the library. Besides, she knew what she had heard, and she had no reason to make it up. Breena didn’t advertise her experience to make money or generate more interest in the library. She never would have told me if I hadn’t asked.
◆ ◆ ◆
I took my camera from around my neck and pointed it through the metal bars. My heart was pounding, my eyes straining to see something—anything—and my ears begging to hear voices. The thinking amongst scientists and ghost hunters is that if ghosts are to truly exist, then they need energy. All matter, self-replicating life or not, has energy inside it; even a rock contains energy. The current theory is that all energy was born with the Big Bang. The first law of thermodynamics states that you can’t get energy from nothing, and you can’t create it or destroy it, either—only transfer it. If a ghost’s voice can be heard, then it needs energy and it needs to transfer that energy from somewhere else, possibly from the energy it had when it was alive. All energy propagates in electromagnetic (EM) waves that can be detected with the right frequency detector. The universe’s EM frequency spectrum runs the gamut from high energy gamma rays—like nuclear reactions inside the sun, nuclear bombs, and power plants—to the lowest frequencies like brain waves.
Most ghost hunter’s use an electromagnetic field (EMF) detector to pick up the energy waves of a ghost. I found one on Amazon for thirty dollars. Although advertised as a wide frequency range (5Hz to 3500MHz) detector, it cannot detect all of the EM waves that exist in the universe. Therefore, if a ghost emits at a frequency higher than 3500MHz, I would not be able to detect it with this device. Without getting too much into the details, hertz (Hz) is a measure of how many waves pass a point in one second. To give these numbers some perspective, 5Hz is a typical low frequency value for things like brain waves and common electronic appliances. AM radio waves emit in the thousands of Hz, and FM waves emit in the millions.
I pointed the ghost detector device through the bars. All was quiet. However, when I lowered it to my side, the alarm went off. A chill ran through my body. The detector picked up energy. The ghost was possibly standing next to me! My heart accelerating, chills dancing along my skin, I waved it around me, but…nothing. “Hello?” I called out into the dark, empty hallway. “Is anyone there?” Watching the LED readout, I lowered the device to my side again and numbers began appearing. I scanned next to my pocket where I had my cell phone. The numbers increased. Bummed, I turned off my phone. The detector went silent once again.
I headed upstairs, scanning the detector in front of me like it was a Geiger counter and I was a Russian nuclear engineer checking Chernobyl for hot spots. The library has two equal halves: the original building and a new addition built in 2000. At the top of the stairs, I entered the large modern section of the library with a long front counter, carpeted floors, metal stacks, newer wooden tables, and study desks along one wall under blinding fluorescent lights and white drop ceiling tiles. It was sterile but functional, with a bland personality.
I turned right at the main counter and crossed the threshold from new to old. The change was immediate. I stepped onto dark pine boards warped and ribbed from a hundred years of foot traffic. Hand-carved oak molding adorned every corner. To the left was an open alcove with built-in bookshelves holding some of the original books from the town’s history. The area exuded an almond-like smell from old paper mixed with a floral like fragrance from aging binder glue. I stood there, taking it all in: the color of aged wood, the smell of time, the softer, dimmed lighting, the old knee-to-ceiling front windows, the original stained glass front door. The area projected a scene of living history of an era long past.
I kept walking and entered the reading and periodical room. I immediately felt the eyes of Clarissa Learned (pronounced “Larned”) probing me. Clarissa rules over her library dominion perched high on the wall inside her faded black and white large framed photo.
Her successful businessman and philanthropist son Charles donated the funds to construct the building under the promise that the library be officially dedicated to his mother. While it’s typical of early-twentieth-century photographs to display unsmiling subjects, Clarissa’s projects a mean look of ill intent. An uneasy feeling seeped into my gut every time I looked up at her. Standing under the picture, I reached up and waved the detector in front of her picture. There was no change. I decided then that if I did fall asleep that night, it would be under her picture.
It was in this room that Breena told me that Steve, the previous janitor who has since passed, came in one morning to find all the high back red velvet chairs set up in a row facing Clarissa’s picture. It was as if she had held a ghost town meeting the night before. But then Breena added that Steve had liked to play practical jokes on his fellow employees.
Most of the haunting rumors swirling in the social wind around town is that the library ghost is indeed Clarissa. I can understand why; anyone who looked at her picture long enough would reach the same conclusion. But if the library is haunted, I don’t believe it can be her. I continue to have debates with colleagues over my theory that if ghosts exist, then they can only exist where they have died. I can’t accept the idea that ghosts are some ethereal floating entities that can go anywhere they choose. My theory is that, if they exist, they are stuck where they died, between our world and something else. Clarissa did not die in the library. However, the building’s land has been in use for thousands of years, first by the Nipmuck then by the Huguenots who settled the town in 1680, followed by the English who officially incorporated the town in 1713. The possibility is high that someone died or was buried on the lot.
As I turned to leave Clarissa, I was spooked as a car’s headlights from Main Street shined through the tall front windows, creating a moving contrast of light and shadow across the stone fireplace. The lights seemed to fly into Clarissa’s picture like she was returning home for the night. I froze and stared at her photo again, waiting for her to wink at me.
Recovering, I walked to the bottom of the stairs that lead to the children’s section. Looking upward, goosebumps flared up again like a measles outbreak as I recalled the conversation I had with Cheryl, the previous head librarian.
◆ ◆ ◆
Before my slumber party with the library ghosts, I called Cheryl, now the head librarian in Charlton. Breena had told me that Cheryl had had her own bizarre experience. Cheryl is someone I know and trust; during my younger school days, I was friends with her older brother, I hung out at their house, and I went on ski trips with her family.
I asked Cheryl what she had seen.
“An image of a woman dressed in a long black dress,” she said.
“At the top of the second-floor stairs.”
“What was she doing?”
“She was moving across the landing.”
“Yes. First she just appeared, hovering, and then she glided across the landing and disappeared.”
“Did you see her face?”
“No, her back was to me.”
“How long would you say you saw her for?”
“It seemed like a minute or so.”
“Where were you? What did you do?” I couldn’t hold back my excitement. I finally had a solid piece of evidence from a valid, firsthand source.
“I was in my office to the left of the landing. At first, I froze, like in shock.” There was a short laugh on the other line. “I slowly sneaked out to the landing to try and get a better peek of who it was.”
“So she looked like real person?”
“Yeah. I mean, it was through the window, but she looked real enough to me.”
“Did you happen to sense anything, like in the air, a temperature change or static electricity? Did you hear any sounds?”
“No, not that I can remember. But it definitely freaked me out.” She laughed.
“And that was it, just this one time?”
“Yes, but what creeped me out almost as much was the time a mother told me the conversation she had with her four-year-old son. He had stopped her at the bottom of the stairs, pointed up and said, ‘Mommy, this is where the old lady lives.’
“And the mother asked him, ‘The old lady?’
“‘Yeah, the ghost.’ he said.
“‘The ghost? What are you talking about, honey?’ she asked.
“And the child answered, ‘The lady in the big picture. This is where she lives.’”
My hair stood on end. When young children are involved with the paranormal, things get truly creepy. How did a four-year-old know about a ghost in the library and think it was Clarissa?
I almost yelled at Cheryl. “Oh my God, I hope you remember her name.”
“No, I don’t, sorry.”
“Damn, I need to meet that kid. He would be what, like eight now?”
“Yeah. I left shortly after that and have been in Charlton now for over three years.”
“Can I ask why you left?”
“Oh, sure. The place always felt too creepy for me even before I saw the image. But after… I’ll admit I had an uneasy feeling especially when I was upstairs alone at night. I took the first opening in the area.”
“So it really affected you that strongly?”
◆ ◆ ◆
The stairs welcomed me up with open-armed, hand-carved wood banisters. An odor of beeswax polish filled the air. Halfway up the stairs, I stopped on the middle landing and, like Harry Potter casting a spell, I waved the wand above my head. I continued upwards, sweeping the detector out in front of me. The landing at the top is where Cheryl saw the image. I sat on the floor, resting my back against the wall for what seemed like an eternity, waiting, hoping, to get a dance with that shadowy special someone in the long black dress.
Some time in the dead of the night, I dozed off while reading a Stephen King bedtime story to Clarissa under her picture. The janitor woke me up at 6:00 a.m. I packed up and said my goodbyes to the spirits of Oxford’s library, promising to return for a game night or a spooky movie and popcorn—perhaps on Halloween night.
Certainly, one overnight stay in Oxford’s library without an encounter has not swayed me one way or another on ghosts. However, I cannot honestly say that I believe in ghosts like the 20% of American adults (surveyed in an August 2009 REW Research Center) poll who claim to have seen or been in the presence of a ghost or the 30% who claim to have been in touch with a dead person. Neither can I say that I am part of the 45% of adults in a more recent December, 2012, Omnibus poll who believe in ghosts or spirits of dead people or the 28% that claim to have seen or been in the presence of a ghost. But I will continue to search for solid evidence on the existence of ghosts or something else beyond our world.
What is exciting though is the discovery of a new energetic substance that exists in the universe. This material could be a potential answer to the ghost existence question. We call it dark matter. Unfortunately, the word “dark” carries a bad connotation and has a connection with bad or evil things. It’s not bad matter, and it’s not evil matter. It’s just that we can’t directly detect it or see it yet, hence the name “dark.” But we know it’s there by the incredible amount of gravitational force it exerts on other objects in the universe. The gravity model we use to accurately predict the behavior of objects in the universe has, as one of its variables, mass, so dark matter must therefore have mass. This means it is a real entity and scientists estimate that at least half the universe is made up of it. This is what’s so great about science: it always gives you more amazing things to investigate.
This next question might be a stretch, but again, it’s just a thought crawling forth from the frothy soup of ideas that tumble in my head daily: Is it possible some of our ‘known’ energy changes to dark energy when we ‘pass?’ And for some, still-unknown reason, can it switch back to our known matter at times? Could that be what we encounter when we see the shape of a woman in a long black dress? Could the transfer of this energy between these two different matters be specific to each entity, so some appear as an image whereas some transfer as sound (like the voices Brenna heard) or even move things? The possibilities are fascinating to consider.