Almost everyone has a ghost story, or at least knows someone who does. Hard to buy into the spirit world at all until you hear some completely sensible, non-hoodoo person tell their tale: the high-functioning yuppie cousin who had to move out of her San Francisco Victorian in the wake of moving objects and whispered night threats; the stolid Highland Park couple who swear they see the shimmering profile of the old woman who died in their home decades ago; the otherwise reasonable accountant who tells how, as a child, he dreamed his brother visited his window to bid him farewell, and then wakes up the next morning to news that the same brother died in a plane crash at 3 a.m.
Whether visitation or haunting, the maybe-it's-true ghost story gets dwarfed this season by the holiday. October is upon us, and swarms of money-hungry entrepreneurs are taking over warehouses and museums and abandoned buildings to stage haunted houses. It's odd, really, how Halloween has evolved to make such a commercial mockery of the spirit world. Odder still is that legions forget their otherwise horrified perceptions of such matters to embrace these nightmarish fun houses. How amusing are ghosts and apparitions if they can still drive you from your own home? Or can they, or is it all really a crock after all, perpetuated by people who have some cracks in their sanity?
The owners of Faustus Sanatorium in Cleburne claim to be wrestling with the same conflict. This annual Halloween destination re-opens this year, "sanatorium" theme intact, with owners Ken and Donna Davidson insisting that the former Hamilton Hotel (circa 1874) is truly haunted. They say that the place, partly damaged by a fire, was purchased in 1916 by A.J. Wright, who transformed it into a combination Elks Lodge and dry-goods store. Why this space -- as opposed to other downtown Cleburne buildings -- vibrates with afterlife is anyone's guess. Nonetheless, the Davidsons claim that since the summer of '95, when the couple started exploring their new purchase's Halloween possibilities, they've been plagued with clammy vibes, mysteriously shifted objects, brushes against the back of their necks (The Sixth Sense, anyone?). They brought in "well-known psychics," who have traced the shenanigans to a handful of spirits, including prankster "George" (an Elks lodger), "Joy" (tossed out a window to her death), and some political figure who hovers by said window. The Davidsons say they smell cigar smoke, oranges, after-shave...any number of scents they themselves couldn't have caused. (Forget the fact that structures can retain traces of smells for years.)
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Thing is, in these parts, most buildings aren't as old as the Wright House, and it seems the older the building or town or region, the more ghost stories abound. Whatever the basis of the Davidsons' claims, it forms a double-edged sword. If none of their stories is true, then it's just a greedy con for financial gain. If they are true, then installing a "terrifying and funny" theme park in a building that might contain a few actual ghosts seems slightly obscene. C'mon. Let's show the dead some respect.
On the other hand, for Halloween connoisseurs, The Faustus Sanatorium may be just the outing to pack that extra punch -- a truly disturbed, netherworld vibe. Old buildings at the very least carry a sense of character. That's gotta be better than the squeaky-clean atmosphere of a haunted house in a new warehouse space or outdoor park. But if you visit the Wright House this month, remember: When you feel something on the back of your neck, it may not be your buddy.