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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Review of Pythian Castle

Pythian Castle, in Springfield, MO, designated a haunted site by people who see dead people

No matter where one's supernatural sensitivity may fall (I for one am fully ghost-blind and ectoplasmically neutral), I believe everyone enjoys a nice portal to another reality. Stargates and Narnian wardrobes being in short supply here in Missouri, one must settle for the old standbys: weird caves, haunted houses, and surprisingly enough, a century-old castle built by a mostly forgotten fraternal order called the Knights of Pythias, or the Pythians.

Although Springfield’s Pythian Castle is only 100 years old (much newer than some of the houses in the area), its architectural hubris, ancient decor, and sheer heft give the impression that one has stepped into another age, or at least discovered a living stage for obscure local history. The building's thermal mass alone helps transport one backward in time: the three-foot-thick stone walls held a bridle on the sunny warming of the mid-March Saturday when I was there. The proprietors even ran two kerosene heaters in the grand dining room for the benefit of our party, but jackets stayed on and only the sunlit windowsills were warm. We speculated that the structure might retain summer heat well into autumn.

The castle also has the added magic of seeming much larger on the inside than the exterior would suggest. The front entry is only mansion-esque, but the deeper one delves within, the more castle-like it becomes. There are several huge rooms, including a theater on the top floor. However, most of the castle’s creepiness points are scored on the lower levels, where there are dungeon-like chambers once used to hold German and Japanese prisoners of war, plus a dark, somewhat claustrophobia-inducing tunnel leading underground to a boiler facility. Now lit by a rope of LED lights, it was once, apparently, traversed by children who carried laundry to the far-back boiler facility—in the dark, or maybe with candles.

The castle is owned by two women, a mother and a daughter who bought the castle at auction about 20 years ago, saving it from demolition. They spent some years fixing it up, restoring it (one assumes) to something resembling former glory. Since the building served multiple functions over the years—meeting hall, retirement home, military infirmary, tourist attraction—there is no way to make it "accurate" or "frozen in time," as the owners explain in response to one negative Google reviewer who wished it were more "authentic." But the entry area, with its grand fireplace/sitting room, foyer, and dining rooms, feels more like an historic hotel. Slightly spooky old photographs and paintings of distinguished people and dogs dominate the entry hall, along with some Halloweenish decorations such as unconvincing suits of armor, placards of coats-of-arms, and big fake tomes that are not books at all, just decor objects.

A tour of the castle begins as visitors gather in the foyer at the appointed time. If it is a “ghost tour,” it will be after dark, probably on a weekend, and it will take longer. A guide appears and begins stabbing people to establish the atmosphere. No—but that might be cool, if well acted. A guide appears, and it might be one of the owners, or it might be Tim, a theatrical and rotund man likely in his thirties. Tim is the way to go. He has a knack for the history surrounding the castle, and for zestfully communicating stories about hauntings. At key moments, he will warn the group, turn off lights, and attempt to contact the dead. Nothing happened when I was there, but whatever the true track record of the paranormal, Tim is good at expressing how commonly and recently there was a weird response from The Other Side, and how somebody lost their shit, or how he himself almost lost his shit when a ghost yelled in his ear or licked him or burned out a light bulb, etc.

If it’s a ghost tour, before you enter the castle proper, visitors have a chance to rent EMF detectors for five bucks. Whatever kind of electronic device they actually are, they appear as a small plastic box with a row of LEDs, much like a stud-finder. Supposedly, they will detect electromagnetic fields created by specters or dancing skeletons or masturbating kobolds. I declined to rent one, but two in our group got them, and thank Zuul, because the presence of EMF detectors gives Tim additional material for his routine. This helps differentiate a “ghost tour” from a regular tour. In certain areas, Tim urges the EMFers to hold their detectors aloft, or bring them together. Sometimes they blink randomly, or in unison. Are they detecting a ghost? A miswired electrical conduit? A hidden transmitter? Tim’s cell phone? You’ll never know!

In a large dance hall, you are encouraged to sit and listen, classroom-style, to Tim’s intro to Pythians. It turns out they were not creepy or even mysterious, just a society of mostly rich guys who made a group similar to the freemasons, but less famous and less storied. They made a castle as a sort of retirement home for their widows, orphans, or other needy family members of Pythians who died or became disabled. Before social security, there were members-only castles. After a few decades, the military bought the castle and used it for medical quarantines and WW2-related operations. Numerous people died here over the years, mostly soldiers, most notably POWs but also ailing children, so you have your pick of odd and potentially resentful spirits to imagine. 

Tim gives a few warnings, both practical and spooky, because he doesn’t want you falling down over the castle’s numerous pre-code hazards, and I think he’s also planting little power-of-suggestion seeds to get everyone primed for paranormal sensitivity. Then he walks the group around. The ground-floor rooms are generally beautiful in their finish but not especially suggestive or storied. There are stories of barracks, infirmary beds, and dances. As you might expect, the basement level is where the action is. Down the stairs you go.

After winding through a couple of bending stone/concrete stairs, our group squeezed into a kitchen-like area with large, defunct boiler equipment. Tim talked, but I was distracted by a Cheerio on the otherwise clean concrete floor. I looked all around for more cereal, but there was just the one piece. How old was it? When we moved on to the next area, my wife’s uncle Stan told his wife, Margaret, that he saw a little boy run through, but there were no children in our group. I did not see the boy. Should I have eaten the Cheerio to gain a connection to the errant spirit? Did losing the Cheerio cause the boy to be stuck in this basement lo these many years after dying? Did anyone else see the Cheerio? Did Stan only tell Margaret he saw the boy because he knows that’s the sort of spooky thing she likes?

If you can't see the far end, whatever is there can't see you.

The creepiness peaks, thanks to claustrophobic architecture, when Tim lets everyone go through a rickety door. We go single file into a tight tunnel, probably 40-50 yards. He tells us that it goes underground to the boiler facility, which is a separate building behind the castle, so there is a long steel pipe running the length of the passage. It would have been pitch black in Pythian times, when children, Tim says, used to carry laundry through there, or maybe they just had to go stoke the boilers in winter. Now, a string of blue rope lights has been attached to the boiler pipe. For the most part, going downstairs has removed all sunlight, but there are exceptions. One is a six-inch concrete vent, halfway along the tunnel, where dim daylight weeps out, along with a puff of outside air. It’s just enough to make you say, “If Tim decides this is the ideal time to lock the whole group in the tunnel, I will claw my way past the others to this drainlike hole so at least I can breathe until Tim kills us.” Granted, Tim lets everyone out, which is nice of him.

The basement becomes huge. There is a big chamber with high ceilings. Off to the left, smaller rooms are said to have been used as prison cells for German prisoners of war. They have cool textures and rusty stains on the walls. Tim states that the Germans there were pretty bad, angry guys, and at least one of them died here. He also says this area is the best for the EMF detectors; they often register “activity” here. In one of the prison chambers, the two in our group with devices use them. They move slowly around the room, raising the detectors, lowering them here and there. Tito Godfrey, my wife’s cousin’s husband, has downloaded an EMF detector phone app since we arrived, and he seems to be getting something, but not really sure. He also takes a couple of photos, and one of them has some glowing rods or spheres in it. This area is also oddly drafty, for a basement with no windows. Tim mentions something about feeling chills here. I spend a few moments looking around for sources of moving air, and have to admit, I can’t see any. We’re quite far away, at this point, from the stairs, or from the vent-hole in the tunnel. The two EMF detectors have some slight blips on them. The room has primitive wiring in some visible steel conduit; I don’t know if this could affect the devices by way of electrical interference, since I don’t even know what the devices are. They could just be walkie talkies with LEDs in lieu of speakers, so anyone (Tim!) with a device on the same frequency could signal them. Or we could be wading through a pissed-off Nazi’s spectral porridge just now.
Then there is a cool room where a Japanese POW painted stuff on the wall. Too dark for me to get a decent photo, but interesting to look at.

The group enters a stone chamber straight out of Dungeons and Dragons, but with a single light bulb hanging in the center. This will be Tim’s greatest paranormal gambit. He gets everyone in the room, lined up all around, backs to the walls. He says this was once an interrogation room for grilling German soldiers. Tim says he has been accosted by spirits here more than once, with some disturbed entity yelling right in his ear. He turns off the light and loudly asks a few questions—first in English, then in what seems like convincing German: “Why are you here?” “What do you want?” and maybe “Are you angry?” There is no response from beyond, but I can’t fault Tim for lack of dramatization. Tim turns the light back on.

As we file out of the room, an older woman who knows my mother-in-law trips over the door threshold and falls like a felled tree, face first. Maybe the German spirit shoved her. She must have caught the brunt of it on her arms, because they peel her off the floor and she seems shaken but basically fine. (Except of course that she can now only speak German and begins killing all Americans!)

Back out the way we came, we worm up to the ground floor, then to the grand staircase. Tim suggests that our group divide by gender, so that men and women go up different sides of the stairs, as was the old-timey custom. Even though we just went to real effort to get a rise out of a resentful ghost in the basement, I guess we are now pussyfooting around the sensibilities of the dead. We arrive, two gender parades, on both sides of a theater that can seat several dozen. Tim gives a little history as usual, then fires up the room’s rather powerful speakers to play audio from a group gathering where a phantom yelled a rather vague distortion into the microphone. It might be “I’ll kill you” or “I’ll get you,” or who knows. Just like the “white noise” phenomenon, unless you are the one who made the recording, it’s another thing that could obviously be a hoax. But with Tim’s endorsement of authenticity, you at least pay attention. Especially since he plays it at about 120 decibels.

Finally, there is an unfinished room upstairs, with raw walls and lots of windows. A dead boy named Peter is said to play with a ball here, and in the nearby halls and stairs. The description of Peter could actually fit the errant boy Stan saw in the basement, near the abandoned Cheerio. Tim gives us some silent time in the room, then directs a few questions at whatever restless spirit may loiter there. Nothing presents, other than a cat that sits on a covered couch. It looks like it can’t believe another stupid group of humans is chumping up the room again.

In the final tally, I saw nothing that made me feel haunted, but I admit there were a few puzzling moments. The place is impressive, and Tim fills it with interesting talk. This is supposed to be one of the most haunted places in Missouri, but if nothing manifests, at least there’s Tim. And let me know if that Cheerio is still there.

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