In-Betweens, Thin Veils, and a Ghost Story or Two

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The infirmary at Canterbury Shaker Village, Canterbury NH, photo by Shannon Barnsley, October 2012.

“It was Gate Night, the night before All Hallows’ Eve. Distant memories of the old stories nagged at me. During All Hallows’ Eve the veil between the world of the living and the word beyond was lifted. Our world and their world all blurred together like ink running on a page in my old primer when we schoolgirls would try to run home in the rain, shrieking and splashing up mud all the way.”

– Shannon Barnsley, Beneath Blair Mountain

Happy All Hallow’s Eve! Here’s a shot of the infirmary at Canterbury Shaker Village after closing time in late October. I love the symbolism here. The village is an in-between place that straddles past and present, an infirmary is a liminal place between life and death, sunset is a liminal time between day and night, and just before Halloween is when the veil starts to thin. It’s like an echo of an echo or a reflection of a mirror.

When I worked at Canterbury as a historical interpreter, I used to lock up this building all the time, which, once it started getting dark before closing time, got creepy. See, Canterbury Shaker Village, a historic village/museum dedicated to the Shaker religious movement, has its share of ghost stories. Many, many ghost stories. Including the one about the woman in black in the infirmary who many visitors claim to have seen going up to the third floor (which is not open to the public and even I never saw). And, given the amount of Spanish flu victims that came through there (outsiders brought their sick to the Shakers because they had higher success rates), it seems a likely candidate for restless spirits.

There are also two lights to turn off in the infirmary: the little one in the display case of old medicines and then the master switch that shuts off the lights to the whole building. And, of course, that one is upstairs, across from the room with the coffin in it (that room was an exhibit on Shaker beliefs about the afterlife, which are super cool btw). Early in the season this wasn’t too bad, because you could see your way back down the stairs and out the building. But once it starting getting dark early, it became something of a haunted house extreme sport.

I’d bring in the flag, lock up the front door, turn off the little light in the medicine case next to the Sweeney Todd style dentist chair, go upstairs past the room that looks like someone still lives there and across from the coffin, flip the switch, then run down the narrow 19th century New England stairs by the light of my cell phone flashlight (this was in flip phone days and it wasn’t so much of a flashlight as an imitation lighter to sway at concerts without being a fire hazard) without tripping and breaking my neck (if you’ve never fallen down a flight of steep, narrow New England stairs, you’ve clearly never been to a sleepover in New Hampshire and you don’t know how badly I wanted to avoid this fate), and zoom past the room with the bone saw straight out the door. Once outside, I would lock up by flip phone light while the autumn wind whispered through leafless trees, the skeletal branches clawed at the sides of the building, and my heart pounded in my chest.

When it came time for the Halloween Ghost Encounters tour, I was the lucky soul who had a role in the infirmary. I played a historian who would pop out and regale the tour groups with tales of infirmary nurse Sister Jessie’s ghostly shenanigans of messing with people from beyond the grave. However, when a tour wasn’t there I was sitting there… in the dark… in the infirmary… between the room with the dentist chair and the room with the bone saw… waiting…

During the actual nights of the Ghost Encounters tours themselves, there was someone else in the building with me, but for two nights of rehearsals, I was completely alone. If you’ve never sat alone for three hours in the pitch blackness of a historical building in a haunted 18th century village at night in late October, trying not to think of the ghost stories that it’s your job to recite, I recommend it. If that doesn’t inspire a ghost story or two, nothing will.

Nothing ghostly happened sitting there alone in the infirmary, but during one tour group’s stop (of course the one my boss was on), my costume got caught on a framed photograph of Sister Jessie, keeping me from hitting my mark. And it was during the part of my monologue about how Sister Jessie messes with the staff. I see what you did there, Sister Jessie. Thanks a lot.

I had mad cred after that, with co-workers and supervisors alike saying they would never, ever be alone in the dark there at night and it gives me a great story to tell at this time of year. Working at Canterbury was wonderful (even with the occasional bout of terror) and I miss it so. If you’re in New Hampshire at any point in your life, do make sure to check it out. I have many stories from there (some ghost stories, some not), so perhaps I shall regale you with more of them some day.

If you’d like another ghost story of mine, though a more fictional one, check out Beneath Blair Mountain, available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback. If you are in New Hampshire, it’s also available at Gibson’s Bookstore and Penacook Pharmacy (say hi for me). Set on October 30th, 1919, it’s the perfect read for this time of year. And there’s even two little shoutouts to the Shakers in it (points if you spot either and bonus points for both). Happy Halloween, my friends. Stick to the roads and keep off the the moors tonight, lest you wander into any fey revels, rural English werewolves, or haunted infirmaries.

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3 thoughts on “In-Betweens, Thin Veils, and a Ghost Story or Two

  1. Happy Halloween to you too!

    Liked by 1 person

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