I told you we could look forward to a guest blog from Kathryn Hohmann, author of Soldiers Rest. Here it is. And you can perhaps tell from the title that we’ll be treated to more than one post from her. Loving it!
Some paranormal tourists attend conferences, stake out well-known sites and head into the field armed with expensive high-tech equipment and advance notice about what they might find. I’m different: I love a surprise.
Adventuring on my own beats joining guided tours, even if the itinerary looks good. I’ve always preferred cooking from scratch to buying convenience food and camping under the stars to checking into a hotel. Arriving somewhere without hints that the landscape is “energized” makes for an exciting haunt jaunt, but following my promptings can get me into real trouble unless I follow a few pointers. I’d like to share a few of them here. I’ll use South Mountain, the site in the southwestern corner of Frederick county, Maryland as an example. That’s where my book, Soldiers Rest, is set and the place that’s taught me the most. Your experiences are probably different, but here’s what works for me.
Get out of the comfort zone. Venturing into the unknown is an essential part of my program. Traveling in a spontaneous way fine-tunes my senses and helps me to naturally gravitate to landscapes that are “energized.” My first trip to South Mountain was a meandering bike ride on hilly terrain that had me struggling in more ways than one!
Monitor personal signals. I’m alert to unusual physical sensations that certain places trigger, clues that I’m being drawn towards a place. Whether it’s a blinding headache, sudden fatigue or feeling punchy enough to joke about a place being “hainted,” it’s critical to track my reactions for evidence of the uncanny. Of course, it’s a cliché to feel chills, but for me, they let me know I’m “getting warmer.” And just as often, I’ll feel intense resistance or agitation about entering places where the fingerprints of the past have been left on the present. Because I’m a skeptic –neither completely open or absolutely closed to these experiences – I’ll need to take my next step.
Hit the books. A trip to the library is another crucial undertaking. In the case of South Mountain, research quickly revealed that Union and Rebel forces faced off in September 14, 1862, on the ridge of South Mountain in a clash that foreshadowed the battle at Antietam — the single bloodiest day on American soil. That’s what I was looking for – a correspondence between historical fact and my hunches. More research showed that a regiment of Rebel soldiers vanished in the battle. No wonder the place felt haunted to me, and no wonder visitors to South Mountain are frightened by hazy shapes in Confederate dress or claim to see misty lights and ghostly campfires burning on the old battleground, especially during the damp and dark September evenings. Learning more also convinced me to write about this place in an in-depth way.
Allow multiple explanations. Some cultures make allowances for “power spots,” or “thin places,” where the barriers between past and present are permeable. Perhaps this explains the legends of the Piscataway Indians, who traditionally lay claim to the rich hunting grounds near South Mountain. The first white settlements date to the early to mid-18th century. Belief in the supernatural was common and included tales of strange winged creatures that swooped down from the ridge of South Mountain to carry off inhabitants. The Civil War battle , which I found so intriguing, was only one layer of mystery. There are contemporary versions, too. It’s no coincidence that film makers picked a town in the shadow of South Mountain to shoot the box-office hit, The Blair Witch Project. The movie about three students who set out in the darkened woods to investigate an old legend called the Blair Witch was so popular that fans flocked to the site, thinking the movie was a documentary! Maybe they were also struck by something vital and powerful near South Mountain. Critics will dismiss the notion as popular culture, but after all, today’s popular culture is tomorrow’s folk lore.
Express a creative response. Because there aren’t definitive answers — not about the Rebels who vanished without a trace on the mountain top or about locations that move us and why –I’ m hoping to create something from my haunt jaunts that will inspire and entertain others. That will keep me traveling and writing for many years to come.
Part Two: A relaxing vacation turns into a terrifying haunt jaunt.