by William Max Miller
Self-portrait as an Angry Ghost, by William Max Miller
Due to the many emails and questions I receive, I here present some of my own personal experiences with the Unknown. Those of you interested enough to read them will soon discover that I have been predisposed from youth toward an interest in the weird and unusual, and that I grew up in a family environment in which psychic phenomena, dreams, and the supernatural were often discussed with a surprising degree of open mindedness and scientific curiosity.
My great-grandmother had at one time been married to a man with a keen interest in psychical research, and his old books of occult lore lined the shelves of our library and provided much in the way of my early reading material. My great-grandmother dabbled in Spiritualism after her husband's death, as did so many people of that era, and visited mediums at the Chautauqua Institution during the early years of the last century. While there, she learned that our ancestors had founded the town of Sterrettania, near Erie, Pennsylvania, and had acquired a reputation for their psychic abilities. Strange stories circulated thereabouts of the precognitive talents and peculiar trances exhibited by some of our relatives, who had apparently inherited their "second sight" from a long line of talented ancestors back in Europe. Via Chautauqua-based sťances, she also procured letters allegedly written by her deceased husband's spirit, aided by the physical hand of the medium who automatically wrote them while in a trance state. These "Letters from the Dead," as we cheerfully referred to them, are still in my mother's possession, and provided hours of enjoyable goosebumps for my friends. They were all signed in a hand that perfectly matches the handwritten signatures of my great-grandfather which appear on the inside front covers of all his books.
I was told that my grandmother had possessed a kind of sixth sense, and sometimes made predictions about future events that were accurate. She once claimed to have seen fairies dancing in the moonlight in the garden out her second story bedroom window. Both my mother and my aunt swear that they have also seen fairies in the house, and both claim to have beheld the ghost of their uncle Santiago standing in the hallway by the bottom of the stairs, much as he had stood in life when he came to visit them. My father, who was usually somewhat skeptical about such things, nevertheless also chilled my blood with his account of a "ghostly presence" which had once pulled the sheets off him in bed one night! When he jumped to his feet to catch the intruder, no one else was in the room...Dad also reported an encounter with ball lightning, which he saw floating up the stairway of a previous residence.
My paternal uncle Dale was a bit of an amateur ghost-buster and psychical researcher who possessed an extensive library of diverse works on odd subjects by writers like Charles Fort, Edgar Cayce and Vincent H. Gaddis. He subscribed to supernaturally-oriented magazines such as Fate and Search, and allowed me to borrow all his books and back issues. Uncle Dale regularly practiced the art of dowsing, and became quite good at it. I still recall the utter amazement I felt when the dowsing rods, made from cut-and-bent metal clothes hangers, first turned in my hands! Uncle Dale showed me how they could be "willed" to move at my telepathic command, and I fiddled with them for weeks, honing my dowsing skills. To my pre-adolescent mind, the movement of the rods seemed to verify the reality of all the extrasensory powers I read about in the pages of Marvel's X-Men comics.
With all these familial influences, I naturally developed a deep interest in unusual phenomena. And the fact that we lived in an ancient three-storied house with a flat mansard roof and gabled upper windows (pictured at left)--a house that looked like the abode of the Addams Family, and in which ancestors had died in every room--added to the prevailing family impetus toward the bizarre. My mother and my aunt seemed to take great pleasure in detailing all the deaths which had occurred in the house over the course of many years, and each room became associated in my young imagination with a different tableaux of mortal dissolution. Even the deaths of pets were added to their lugubrious litany of obituary recollections, and soon animal ghosts appeared beside the many human specters which populated the dark corners and hallways with their furtive shadows.
The death which most captivated my imagination was of a servant girl who had fallen down the back staircase and broken her neck sometime in the early 1900's. The back staircase, you see, was reached by way of a trap door in my bedroom, immediately to the right of my bed. Its steep, spiraling steps led to the dining room below, and it was always a place of cobwebs and sinister darkness, nevermore utilized as a means of access since the day of the dreadful accident. I often lifted that heavy trap door and stared into the gloom, imagining. And at night, with the ill-fated staircase not more than three feet from my face, I could almost hear the sound of that poor woman's body as she tumbled, screaming, toward her end below.
In spite of its creepy ambiance, I rarely felt real fear in my ancestral home, with but a few remarkable exceptions. One occurred soon after my aunt shared with me her strange fear of old mirrors. "I dislike old mirrors," she once suddenly stated. "They're not healthy." She went on to give an explanation straight out of Weird Tales. Mirrors, according to my aunt, need to remain in use in order to stay fit. If they are taken down and stored away unused for too long, they become ill, deranged, hungry. They pine away for an image to reflect, and grow bitter and malevolent in their emptiness. Should someone gaze within a mirror so afflicted, the image-starved looking glass will begin to drain the person's life-force into itself and the real flesh-and-blood person will weaken and finally fade away...What a ghastly thing to tell a child! Where had auntie gotten such a morbid notion? Had she been watching too many programs like Boris Karloff's Thriller or One Step Beyond? Or had she simply gone off her rocker? Sometime during my childhood, I remember seeing a comic book with a story in it entitled "The Mirror That Stole Faces!" (Forbidden Worlds #189, January-February 1963.) The lurid cover depicted a terrified woman standing in front of a mirror, her face flying off her head and being sucked into the mirror's silvery surface. Maybe my aunt had seen this comic book and simply retold the tale, disguised as one of her own beliefs, to amuse me.
At any rate, soon after hearing my aunt's strange reflections, I made one of my frequent forays into the third floor attic, in search of old toys and books. While rummaging through boxes containing the oddments of bygone years, a kind of sinister silence descended on the room like a dreary fog. I had been so distracted by my task that I'd initially failed to notice the other objects which leaned watchfully against the walls surrounding me, and suddenly their presence made itself known to my consciousness in a rush of apprehensive awareness. I cautiously surveyed the room, almost too afraid to move, and realized, with a growing alarm, that it held a large number of old antique mirrors, all facing outward and reflecting my now-dismayed visage. Everywhere I turned, I saw another dim reflection of myself in the dusty, long-neglected looking glasses. My widening eyes reflected back at me from a dozen crazy angles, and it seemed that those eyes became the eyes of the mirrors themselves, of the forgotten, resentful mirrors, gazing fixedly at me in hunger...I fled that room of deranged, vampiric mirrors and rushed down the stairs, back into the world of healthy, reliable reflecting surfaces, kept friendly and civilized by constant use. Many days passed before I returned to the third floor, reinforced by my father's sensible condemnation of my aunt's silly imaginings. But the old mirrors in their ornate, antique frames continued to make me uneasy for a long, long time, and I eventually summoned the courage to turn them all toward the walls. Even today, when I discover a mirror covered by a blanket in a closet or stored behind boxes in a garage, I still hear a dim, far-off echo of the fear inspiring words spoken by my aunt so many years ago.
In the following weeks, I'll share more of my strange experiences with you on this page. None of them add anything definite to the long catalogue of similar experiences recorded by all people at all times. All of them are ambiguous, and capable of being explained away in mundane terms by the confirmed skeptic. They merely offer hints, tantalizing hints, that the world might not be the common, ordinary place we typically imagine. Below is a of table of contents showing what to expect soon on this page. The section on Night Terrors and somnambulism is now complete.
1. Night Terrors and Somnambulism
The Night Terror--Spring, 1975
Stranger on the Third Floor--Summer, 1965
2. Other Worlds: The Bi-polar Spectrum
The worlds of depression & mania
Attack of the Black Shadow--Summer, 1975
The Boy in the Blue Snow Suit--Spring, 1985
4. Strange Coincidences
"A Penny for Your Thoughts."--Spring, 1987
The Day the Mirror Fell--September, 1967
5. Strange Fates and Destiny
The Well-Timed Death of Chester Mahaffy--Spring, 1975
Return to The Weird Worlds of Doctor Strange
Return to Time's Seventh Tower
Background Image by William Max Miller